Tuesday, October 19, 2021

The Midnight Bell - Matthew Bourne and New Adventures

I went to see this last week - my first time back in any kind of theatre since March 2020. The experience of being out was mostly okay - we were at The Curve in Leicester where they asked people to keep masks on during the performance - which was busy but not sold out with most people complying with the mask request, and usher's emptied the auditorium out row by row at the end so there was no press of people to get through. Despite all that I find I'm not quite comfortable with being sat in a crowd yet.

The Midnight Bell was also a challenging reintroduction to live performance. I have some of Patrick Hamilton's novels which it's loosely based on, bought many years ago with good intentions. But then I read somewhere that Julie Birchill is a massive fan, and I find her so annoying that it's put me off ever since. This is probably doing both Hamilton and Burchill a disservice. I might not like her writing much, but I have no reason to be sniffy about her reading. That's the nature of prejudice though.

Even if I had read 'Hangover Square', The Midnight Bell is based on several books with added bits so I'm not sure it would have helped. What would have been useful would have been more of a synopsis in the program, or even a breakdown of who the characters were. 

As it is the dancing is excellent, but it was hard to work out what was going on - the first 20 minutes felt like an intro for something that never came. The ballet follows the lives of 10 characters who frequent The Midnight Bell pub as they form and reform relationships with each other mostly fuelled by alcohol. In the second half, the action has moved on a month and we see how those relationships resolve. 

It works well, especially with a gay relationship that wasn't explicitly in the Hamilton books. This becomes the heart of the piece and the story we (my friend and I) mostly cared about. Probably least successful from our point of view was the relationship between George Harvey Bone (a schizophrenic) and Netta Longdon (an out-of-work actress). The violence this ends with was unwelcome given recent news. If we'd known it was coming we probably wouldn't have been as put off by it, but we didn't and it was jarring.

Altogether worth seeing, I've not seen a story like this told in dance before and I think it worked well. we enjoyed the challenge of it, and I'm glad I've seen something this year, but on reflection I don't think I'll be going back into a theatre until the spring. Covid numbers feel just too high and work makes me vulnerable enough, 

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Gold of the Great Steppe at the Fitzwilliam Museum

It's been a big week for venturing out again, first to the ballet and today to Cambridge and the Fitzwilliam for the Gold of the Great Steppe exhibition. It'll also probably be the last venturing out for a while as I could really do without Covid and I'm not loving the number of people who have abandoned masks altogether now. Very noticeable as we accidentally hit Cambridge the day a half marathon was being run (it was chaos with nightmare parking) which meant the pavements were extra crowded - to the point that even being outside felt overwhelming at times. Never mind that on a packed park and ride bus only about a quarter of us wore masks. 

At least inside the exhibition numbers were carefully controlled, there was an expectation of mask-wearing, and the layout both neatly divided people and kept them moving. It also meant that we had no idea what treasure would be revealed next as we worked our way through and the element of surprise was brilliant. 

I can't recommend this exhibition highly enough - if you get the chance go and see it. Entry needs to be booked but is free, and the exhibits are fabulous. I knew nothing about the Saka people (and due to mistakenly assuming the exhibition catalogue would be easy to buy elsewhere my big regret of the day is I decided not to get one and carry it around with me). 

A lot of these finds are fairly recent (within the last decade as well as being from a culture little known outside of Kazakhstan) which adds both to the element of surprise - who knew this was out there? And the general sense of awe that a lot of treasure will produce. There are other wow moments that I've just deleted descriptions of because frankly, they would be spoilers, but I will share a picture of the exhibit that really got me.

It's thousands of tiny gold beads no more than a millimetre across heaped together. The skill to make these, never mind a needle fine enough to thread them onto clothes is mind-boggling. The way they glowed under the lighting as if they were their own light source was also magical. There are bigger items that looked more impressive in the moment, but these speak of another level of skill and wealth. They're the thing I went back for another look at and broke my don't take pictures in exhibitions habit for (it's annoying for the people around you and doesn't encourage you to look properly).

On until the end of January - go if you can Gold of the Great Steppe

Saturday, October 16, 2021


This week has been a bit of a blur - between a new cocktail book, a first post lockdown trip to the theatre, working, catching up with a couple of people, and making a batch of mincemeat I don't think I've got to bed before midnight since last Sunday. Please don't imagine the bags under my eyes at this point.

I didn't bother with Mincemeat last year and missed making it - but had enough left from 2019 for a lockdown Christmas and used it all. It's one thing I really think is worth making if you like it and the recipe I use, based on Fiona Cairns mincemeat from 'Seasonal Baking' has never let me down. My first attempt was an Elizabeth David recipe that made an industrial quantity, cost a fortune because of that, lasted for years (it was not appealing), and quietly gave the impression that it was fermenting in the fridge for a lot of that time.

The reason the David recipe had appealed, and part of the reason why I like the Fiona Cairns recipe so much, is that neither needs you to cook the apples first. It's a lot of chopping but when it's done it's done, and each time I've made it I've changed the recipe a little to suit myself. The original is fig and almond, and really good. This year's version is cherry, apricot, and hazelnut, with some added cocoa nibs, because actually, I don't really love figs and the whole point of making my own is that it can be what I want. 

I make quite a lot of this because I love mince pies, and it's no bad thing to have a couple of jars leftover for the beginning of the next mince pie season whilst the current year's batch is maturing. It definitely wants a month or two to mature so now is the perfect time to get mixing, and it's worth making your own because it certainly has less sugar than the stuff you buy, and as it tends to be a drier mix you don't end up with molten mincemeat glued to your baking tray. 

This makes an impressive quantity of mincemeat suitable for households that love mince pies, eat a lot of them, and are likely to give some jars away - half it if that's not you.

200g of nuts - I mostly use almonds or hazelnuts, but would consider walnuts. Toast them for 5 minutes, leave them to cool whilst assembling everything else, then blitz or chop them into small bits. 

500g of Bramley apples peeled, cored, and finely chopped.

300g of currents

400g of raisins

300g of dried fruit - figs, cherries, apricots, dates, cranberries - or a mix of these (or even something else if you prefer) chopped as appropriate.

200g mixed peel, chopped

200g of suet.

200g of demerara sugar

200g of dark muscovado sugar

The zest and juice of 2 oranges and 2 lemons.

3 teaspoons of mixed spice and 2 teaspoons of ground cinnamon. 

120ml of alcohol. Whisky, Rum, or Brandy are all good. If using whisky or rum I wouldn't mix them, but if I'm using brandy I'll normally do half and half with a liqueur. This year I've used amaretto and calvados. Frangelico, cherry brandy, apricot brandy, port, Madeira, or similar would all work. What you choose should depend on what fruit and nuts you've gone for, and to an extent what you have to hand.

Mix everything together in a large bowl and cover with cling film. Leave for 24 hours, mixing the whole lot up every so often to make sure everything is thoroughly distributed and that the flavours can really blend. Pot in sterilised jars and store somewhere cool and out of direct sunlight until needed. 

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

The Spirits - Richard Godwin

A long time ago when I read the River Cottage Mushroom handbook it explained the importance of having at least 2 mushroom guide books to confirm what you were identifying. John Wright is a wonderful writer, I really enjoyed that book, but I'm not actually that wild about mushrooms so never got another one. I do think that anybody who is at all interested in cocktails needs at least a couple of recipe books though, and sort of for similar reasons. 

With a modicum of self-control cocktails are unlikely to poison you (please drink responsibly) but there's a lot to be said for being able to compare recipes for classics, and having something to cover all moods. I have a small handful of reprints of older books which have taught me a lot, and a couple of more contemporary volumes which are great too - though they mostly lean towards aperitifs, vermouth, and other things along those lines. 

I have strong opinions on what makes a good home cocktail and a good home cocktail making guide. The key principle is that they have to be relatively easy to make - so no overly specialised equipment, and not to many hard to source ingredients. If I want that kind of cocktail I'll go to a bar. Richard Godwin (you can subscribe to his The Spirits newsletter (he describes it as like a book club but for drinks which it is) to get an idea of his style is excellent at providing the perfect to make at home recipe. Having followed his weekly bulletins for most the summer I ordered the book fairly soon after seeing it was being reissued. 

A limited number of ingredients means you can invest in reasonably good quality spirits without spending an absolute fortune (you get out what you put in, spending an extra couple of pounds for a good mid range vodka, gin, rum, bourbon etc is worth it) which also matters. The great thing about Godwin, and this book, is that he takes what he's doing seriously, but not to seriously. There's a lot of history and information here and an excellent selection of classics - old and modern, and a whole lot of varietaions on them. Basically something for every mood or occasion.

This is another important thing about making really good cocktails at home - balance is important and so are proportions, but my idea of when a drink is sweet or sour enough might not be yours. The only way to get it right for you is to test. When you're stating out a book that actively encourages you to make adjustments as wanted is really helpful. Godwin also suggests substitutions which is possibly my favourite thing about his approach to drinks writing. This really is a book that will help you (me) make the most of what I have to hand.

It doesn't hurt that it's a genuinely enjoyable book to sit down and read too. My copy arrived looking like it had already seen some life, and in the 24 hours since it's seen some more. I've tried the Daquiri Mulata (dark rum and coffee liqueuer with lime juice and golden sugar syrup - an excellent twist on the classic) and am going to bed shortly to read up on punches - of which I'm promised plenty. 

(at time of writing the best price I've seen it for online is via Blackwell's)

Monday, October 11, 2021

Goshawk Summer - James Aldred

I started reading this book this morning, and have read it every moment I could since until I finished it. It was only about 50 pages from the end that it struck me that a book written by a photographer, which describes scene after scene, had no pictures in it.

'Goshawk Summer' is a sort of diary from James of his experience of 2020 - coming back from a work trip in East Africa filming cheetahs just before the first lockdown, he ends up on another assignment in the New Forest following Goshawks and other wildlife for the spring and early summer. It's an odd time to read about, not least because my lockdown was endlessly extended by being in Leicester where restrictions remained in place for almost all of last year.

When I did get out of the city and moved in with my mother to help her post-op (almost exactly a year ago) it was just before the second lockdown. We were in a quiet Leicestershire village which has its pretty bits, but also a lot of pig farms and mud - it's not any kind of tourist destination, very unlike the New Forest. For James, there's the sense of being an interloper first in the Goshawk's territory, and then as restrictions lifted, in the human territory of the forest where the residents got increasingly fed up with the hoards of visitors that descended as soon as they legally could. 

It's an excellent book about observing, changing baselines, and what the future might hold. Goshawk's in the UK are a success story of illicit reintroduction - it's likely that most of the growing wild population are escaped or deliberately released birts bought in by falconers. There are other species recolonising spaces in the same way - pine martens are another predator making their way back into the forest, and there's a steady stream of stories in the news about beavers successfully doing their win thing too. What we don't know is the effect they'll have on ecosystems, and how we might have to learn to live with some of these animals.

Most of us will remember the strangeness of Spring 2020 - the subduing of human noise and activity contrasted by a burst of noise and activity from, around here particularly, the birdlife which suddenly and wonderfully seemed to have the parks to themselves. How those first weeks had an otherworldly, out of time feeling, when everything was uncertain, but also we had no idea how many people would die or how long we would be living with covid for. Also how they were followed by people colonising previously quiet spaces with no thought for anything g or anybody who had been using it before. My park became unusable due to the number of drinkers and drug users who moved into it.

There's a lot to think about in all this about how we need green spaces, how we need to better distribute them, take some of the pressure off of the national parks and well known beauty spots and consider if the pattern of land use and ownership that we currently have is working for enough people. The indications are that it is not - selfish behaviour is both frustrating and understandable (to an extent). There are the younger people denied the festivals that would normally punctuate their summer treating the forest, in the same way, they would campsites, oblivious to the reality that there isn't an army of people to clean up after them. The dog owners who fail to keep their animals on a lead or under control around nesting sights and resent any commentary. The people who park in gateways and driveways, who block the roads and mow down an endless array of roadkill. The angry locals who are all out of empathy for people desperate to get out of their houses.

All of it needs to be part of a wider national conversation. Aldred makes no bones about how he feels about it all, but he doesn't overburden the reader with his commentary either - it's very much about what he observes. There's hope here as well as worries for the future, and specifically the future of the forest. Plenty that can be fixed with only a little thought and education, and just maybe a greater awareness would help us approach some of the bigger systemic issues for which there are no quick fixes. 

There's also an endearing insight into a life (wildlife photographer who travels the world) that might sound glamorous, but also involves a lot of time standing in a wet ditch being bitten by midges, and a deep appreciation for the things we still have, whilst we still have them. This would also be an excellent book to read with Stephen Rutt's 'The Eternal Season' and James Rebanks 'English Pastoral'. All three cover the particular moment we find ourselves in, in practical and accessible ways. Aldred and Rutt particularly encourage observation, and once you start to see what's happening, and begin to grasp the complexity of these natural systems, I for one find I desperately want to be part of the answer before it's entirely too late. 

Thursday, October 7, 2021

The Crow Folk - Mark Stay

The cold I'm afflicted with is hanging on like a snotty limpet (I wish it would go, I'm thoroughly fed up of feeling constantly tired and bunged up - and it's only been just over a week, so how people are coping with long covid is beyond me). Never the less I've dealt with a bowl full of windfall quinces and have a satisfying 13 jars of jelly to find a home for now and haven't fallen entirely behind on my reading.

Work asked me to read something I wouldn't normally go for (contemporary) so I chose Mark Stay's 'The Crow Folk', which I also thought was young adult, although now it's on the shelf it's designated science fiction/fantasy rather than teen. Working out where things should be shelved is one of the hardest parts of working in a bookshop. There's a remarkable number of titles that defy easy categorisation and run the risk of becoming almost impossible to find again once they're buried on what might not be the right shelf.

With 'The Crow Folk' though I feel that the slight ambiguity of where it belongs is in line with the tone of the book which is somewhat uneven. The heroine is a 17 year old girl, Faye, who is just discovering that the mother who died when she was 4 might have been a witch and that she might have inherited her magical abilities.

The basic premise is good - somebody has opened a door, and something nasty has come through it - Pumpkinhead, a minor demon who is bringing the scarecrows to life and setting them on the villagers. Pumpkinhead desperately wants the book Faye's mother wrote for her (apparently something that was entirely forbidden). Meanwhile Faye is struggling to find answers about who and what she is, the war is rumbling on in the background, the other local witches are angry with each other, and there's never anytime to sit down and read. 

The problems begin early on with a silly mistake where elderflower heads for cordial turn into elderberries for a couple of pages - which is it? And what time of year does that make it? Faye reads as somewhat younger than 17, and I would think this was perfect for teens except that some of the jokes about sex landed badly for me - like a much older uncle trying to tell you mildly smutty jokes. I couldn't see the point of them or imagine who was meant to be amused. Her relationship with her father and the rest of the village doesn't really work either in my opinion.

The wartime setting doesn't feel particularly well researched either - I didn't check up on some of the details because by that point I didn't care enough, but it felt off. It's a shame - it's not a bad book, the blurb quote that describes it as a Doctor Who meets Worzel Gummidge is especially accurate. The scarecrows would make excellent Doctor Who monsters and provide some proper chills. I was never a fan of Worzel Gummidge, but if that combination sounds like a winner to you have a look at this. Otherwise probably don't. 

Monday, October 4, 2021

Fire and Ice - Emma Stibbon RA

Not even a head cold could spoil my absolute excitement over getting this book! I've admired Emma Stibbon's prints for a few years now, but even her prints are currently well out of my price range, and they're not quite D's thing so even if I could afford one there's the question of if we're going to live together how much I should be taking his taste into account? In fairness, it needs to be more than I've done in the past (not at all), or half my most treasured possessions will end up jostling for space with the half of his I don't much care for in whatever dark corners we can find to hide them in.  

Anyway, I can stop trying to save or convince when it comes to Emma Stibbons thanks to this Royal Academy produced facsimile sketchbook. It's even better than the Norman Ackroyd books I have from the same series (we both love Norman Ackroyd's work, there won't be any need to negotiate there).

Stibbons is fascinated by landscapes and environments in flux. These sketches cover volcanos and trips to the Arctic and Antarctic. Each sketch comes with a thumbnail and some notes at the back which give useful details about the media used, and the landscapes represented. It answered some of my questions about how she does what she does in her sketches (the answer was gouache along with watercolour) but mostly I'm still slack-jawed with awe (and because of the cold) by how she captures the moments and moods she does. In one sketch it's possible to see where ice crystals formed in the paint as the watercolours froze whilst she was working. 

These books are really worth looking out for and grabbing if they cover an artist you admire. It's not quite like owning an original, but it's a lot closer than I expected to get and does feel a lot like having my own private exhibition of sketches to enjoy. I'm also attracted to the old fashioned idea of having an album of sketches to flip through - in the same way, that one of Jane Austen's characters might have done, or Anthony Trollope's young people would have flirted over. On a night when Instagram is down the charm of a book of images cannot be overstated. 

Saturday, October 2, 2021

The Monsters of Rookhaven - Pádraig Kenny

One of the bonuses of working in a bookshop is the range and quantity of books that come your way - there is a considerable expectation to read and for me, it's also an expectation to widen my reading into more stuff by contemporary writers. 'The Monsters of Rookhaven' is a children's book (9-12 year age range) and also one of our books of the month. I wouldn't normally have picked it up, but it was sitting in the staff room and once I started I really wanted to see it through.

As I'm still struck down by a hideous cold (my voice has almost completely gone today) the 9-12 years reading range was also just about right for the level of concentration I could muster. It's a testament to the quality of the book that I finished it in an evening. The range of children's books has come on in leaps and bounds since I was a child, and even since my much younger brother and sister were this age. There were great books around then, just nothing like the choice we have now.

The monsters of Rookhaven are a family who live on an estate hidden from the world by a magical glamour. The only people who know about them are the local villagers with whom they have a covenant - they'll stay inside their estate in return for food. It's an arrangement that's worked well for hundreds of years until the magic wears thin and a couple of desperate children find themselves on the wrong side of the glamour. After that things start to get complicated.

It's a smart and funny book about family, love, right, and wrong. The concept of who and what is monstrous keeps shifting, the tension ramps up nicely, the book is complete in itself, but there are plenty of things left to explore in further installments of the series. It's set just after the second world war which gives the perfect opportunity to explore how grief affects people, and families as a whole, in a way that feels natural. 

I really liked the main characters - Mirabelle who is subtly different to her family and doesn't understand why. Jem and Tom, the children who find themselves in this strange new world - especially Tom whose behaviour is so often morally compromised but who's doing the best he can for his sister. The friendship this trio forms feels natural too, they're all outcasts of one sort or another. 

The threat that comes for Mirabelle and her family is genuinely scary, the more so because it's evil at its most plausible and underneath its monstrous trapping all too easy to believe in. Uncle Enoch, the family patriarch is a satisfying character too. He has difficult decisions to make and maybe my favourite thing about the book is the way that Kenny breaks these down for us. Altogether recommended for the younger readers in your life and for anyone who feels really grotty and wants a slightly gothic distraction from their cold based woes. 

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Poppy Cooks The Food You Need

There are things I miss about lockdown - mostly the being able to stay at home, or stay at mum's home and hang out with her dog part of it. I wasn't very sociable before Covid, and now I have my first head cold since sometime in 2019 I miss the solitude or the excellent company of the dog even more. Colds are such an utterly miserable experience (I'm confident this isn't covid - tests agree, and I've been vaccinated against flu and pneumonia this year - I still feel shit). 

It is not the mood to approach Poppy in, she looks incredibly glamorous on the cover of her book (although she probably gets colds too, and probably bundles herself up in an old dressing gown and oversized slippers when she does) and reminds me that I should probably try and get to grips with Tik Tok which is where she made her breakthrough. 

Poppy's lockdown story is one I genuinely find encouraging. She lost her sous chef job at an exclusive members club in March 2020 (if I'm reading the bio correctly) but started cooking on Tik Tok as a creative outlet. She was a hit, fast gathering over a million followers, and now there's a cookbook getting some really good notices as well. Poppy undoubtedly did the hard work to get to this point, over a decade working up from the bottom in kitchens is tough by any standard, so I love that she's now getting to do this (hopefully) on her own terms. 

I'll also happily admit she's a phenomenon that had mostly passed me by. I don't even look online for written recipes, I'm aware that all sorts of things are happening out there but I'm very much a book person, a habit I can't imagine breaking at this point, so I'm glad Poppy has broken through into mainstream publishing with her impressive love of potatoes to show me what I've been missing.

The answer really does seem to be potatoes, they even make their way into a donut recipe - a perfectly reasonable starch to use and one of the things I'd really love an excuse to make. The book is set up around 12 techniques or recipes, and then builds on them starting with core and staple options, moving into brunch, and potato, then finishing with fancy AF recipes. 

It's a really useful book for the first time away from home, or first time with a proper kitchen, cook. Full of things you want to eat and great for building a repertoire of skills. My generation had Delia Smith, and the doorstop which was the complete cookery course. This book is shorter, better illustrated, and easier to learn from. I'm not saying we were short-changed back in the day, but how we live and eat has changed in the last 30 years and I haven't seen any book which underlines that as clearly for me as this one. 

It's not the recipes that do this particularly - they're an enticing mix of fairly traditional, and contemporary that all sound delicious, and I could probably find in some version or another in the books I already have (a couple of surprising potato suggestions aside). It's some alchemy in the presentation and attitude that feels like a sea change. A different style that I can't quite put my finger on, but that I think we're going to see a lot more of - though probably online rather than in print. 

Buy this for the younger cooks in your life, the ones just leaving home, and get them to cook for you. 

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

These Names Make Clues - E.C.R. Lorac

If I thought the books were out of hand before now, working in a bookshop looks set to dial it up further - I have so many exciting review copies of things hanging around at the moment (mostly in piles on the floor as that's the easiest way to see them) and I've been buying with enthusiasm too. I'm even reading books too - which is seriously slowing down my knitting, but there are worse problems to have. 

These Names Make Clues is the latest title from the British Library Crime Classics series, it's a particularly intriguing addition to the canon. Lorac (the pen name of Edith Caroline Rivett) was elected into The Detection Club in 1937, the year this came out and the same year as she wrote Bats in the Belfry. Martin Edwards makes a convincing case for the influence the club might have had on this novel which adds to the fun of it. 

Chief Inspector Macdonald is invited along to a treasure hunt in the home of a publisher he has recently met (whilst unknowingly insulting one of the books he publishes). He'd rather stay at home with his book*, something I'm sure most of us can relate to but feels he'll look a fool if he doesn't go - and maybe be a fool if he does. Macdonald does the only thing he can - flips a coin, and finds himself committed to the party. At least it has the lure of a couple of people he'd very much like to meet, although they'll all be operating under literary pseudonyms, part of the game is to guess who each other might be, and to see if the detective fiction writers can solve the puzzles faster than academics or the Scotland Yard man.

It should surprise nobody, or be any kind of a spoiler, to learn that someone is killed during the treasure hunt. Macdonald, probably wishing more than ever that he'd stayed home, feels that something isn't quite right. It could have been a death due to natural causes, bet he, and we, are here for murder. 

What follows is enjoyable - the suspects are a smart lot operating under their own ideas of what constitutes right and wrong. There are any number of red herrings, the pseudonyms are their own form of clue, and there's plenty here that puts me in mind of Agatha Christie, which is a considerable compliment. 

Generally speaking, I think Lorac is an excellent author to turn to if you've run out of Christie's or want something similar but different, but in this book in particular they feel close. This is partly because of the nature of the mystery and its setting which both feel like they might be paying homage to Christie. Lorac's characters behave in their own way (although I suddenly realise however much Christie I've watched, it's a long time since I actually read her), but I'm confidant fans of one will love the other. An excellent mystery to dispel the misery of a cold, wet, autumn evening. 

*The book name-checked is by Peter Flemming, older brother of Ian who was as yet unknown as a writer, which is another pleasing detail I gleaned from the introduction. 

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Wedding Planning

This isn't something I ever thought I'd be doing and there seem to be a lot of decisions to make about things I'd didn't know I'd need to know about - like orders of service and when to contact registrars. Nevertheless, it's happening. We've booked a church, set a date, worked out a time, talked to the minister (who is absolutely lovely, and that's another thing I'd never considered - what would you do if you found you really disliked the person who was going to marry you?) and started a job list. 

I've bought wine, because priorities, and also who knows what new inconvenience or expense Brexit has waiting for the unwary wine buyer in the coming year. Decent wine isn't cheap and my family can put it away so this feels like a significant commitment all by itself. 

The job list is mostly fairly tedious stuff that absolutely needs to be done, which has made this last weekend of going up to the Borders to meet Rachel the Minister even more of a delight. She effortlessly made everything exciting again whilst throwing in all sorts of extra questions about things we had no idea about but are now on the job list. She also showed us the inside of the church we'll be getting married in. We'd walked to it lots of times over the years, but had never been inside (assuming it was locked but pre covid it was kept open, which is very much of a piece with why we like this places much).

The Borders were also blessedly free of panic or fuel shortages - no queues, no closed petrol stations around us, and we found a couple of excellent restaurants in Melrose; Burt's and Provender. It's a beautiful area with a lot to recommend it for anybody who likes walking, good food, peace and quiet, small towns, and dark skies full of stars. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

The Hawks of Delamare - Edward Marston

I'm kind of fascinated by how much I like this series of books and why their particular formula works so well for me. In theory, I wouldn't have it down as something I'd enjoy so thoroughly - there's not much in the way of the characterisation that normally makes a book come alive for me. The plot for each book is more or less the same in so far as someone is murdered just before Ralph and Gervaise turn up with their commission. They work out who did it, avert disaster - twice now in the form of the Welsh, wrap up the land disputes and move on.

The crimes are somewhat brutal, but not overly described so even someone as squeamish as I am can happily cope with them. Characters are deftly drawn and the fact that they're mostly just sketched in is surprisingly effective. A lot of the Norman barons seem to be a thoroughly bad lot, but both history and a childhood love of Robin Hood make that easy enough to believe. Formula aside, Marston manages to create a real sense of lawless threat with some of his characters - or perhaps the sense that they can genuinely operate above the law simply on the basis of military strength.

This book has one of the few obvious mistakes that I've come across - or at least I assume it's a mistake that a character who essentially commits suicide gets a Christian burial - but I may be wrong to think they wouldn't at this point.

As I started my 4th Domesday book a couple of nights ago (The Wildcats of Exeter) and then regretfully put it aside for more pressing things (I'm reading an excellent book at the moment, but it covers some difficult ground including a harrowing description of an attempt at home abortion and subsequent miscarriage) I realise that a significant part of its appeal is in the certainty about what I'm getting.

Marston clearly knows what his readers like, and he sets out to provide it for them. In my case, that's a mystery where more or less everybody behaves the way I've come to expect, occasional jokes that will make me laugh, villains to properly dislike, heroes that are neither complex nor tortured, and a book that keeps me happily turning the pages when I'm too tired to be much good for anything else until I'm ready to sleep.

Monday, September 20, 2021

My Sorrow Mi Libertad - Robin Harwick

This is a novella aimed at young adults written by an American Ph.D. and based on the experience of people she worked with who wanted their stories told. I found it a curious book to read as I'm not entirely sure who it's aimed at, in places the language felt too formal to be right for a young adult audience, and there's a consciously educational edge to it that blurs the sense of it being fiction. The structure is also quite episodic, so it made sense that it was made up of multiple people's experiences, but had the effect of making some parts of the plot seem a little disjointed, and I kept wondering if it was staying too true to case notes.

That said, the disjointed feel makes sense in terms of the heroine's life, which is constantly being thrown off balance so in some ways it really works. There's also a bit of a disconnect for a British reader trying to understand the American welfare system. 

I think our care systems are probably similar, young people are certainly extremely vulnerable in them in both countries, and education is moving closer to an American model, especially post-secondary school where courses are increasingly expensive. The big differences come with health care and attitudes towards homelessness though. And of the two it's the homeless situation that really shocks me because at least the differences in health care are well discussed. 

Obviously, homelessness is an issue here, and so is begging, but as bad as it is we have nothing like the tent cities that are described - we don't get the weather conditions that Seattle does either, and the idea that people are expected to live like that with no hope of help is a lot to comprehend in a rich nation. We don't have quite the same opioid crisis as America either - so altogether there's a lot to disturb here.

The story centers around Didi, maybe just 15 when the book starts, and sofa surfing whilst her mother is meant to be getting her life together (she's homeless and hooked on heroin, so Didi is trying to give her some space). Social services eventually catch up with her after her school intervenes and she ends up in the foster system, but as a teenager has no chance of getting a place with a family. Instead, she ends up in group homes that she hates, and which become increasingly restrictive as she keeps running away. There's a spell of living on the street with other kids, and then eventually a more hopeful situation with some support and continuity. 

The strengths of the book are in how it shows how easily almost any of us could end up in a similar situation - especially without an NHS to patch us up. Finding a job without an address or a bank account is really hard, and so it goes on. Once you fall between the cracks it's very hard to pull yourself up again. The way Didi comes across as both capable and very vulnerable is excellent too. As the book progresses the problems her chaotic life has created for her become more apparent.

This was a quick and compelling book to read, and definitely a good place to start if you want to discuss issues around homelessness, immigration, the care system, education, and health, with younger people. For UK readers it serves as a stark warning for how much worse some things could be if we don't take care of what's left of the welfare state.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Shetland Folk Tales - Lawrence Tulloch

I've been looking a long time for a book on Shetland folklore that's authoritative and enjoyable to read - I have a feeling Earnest Marwick's collection might be what I want but it's out of print, expensive in paper, and ebooks defeat me when it comes to referring back to things. Lawrence Tulloch's collection was this summer's hopeful purchase but it wasn't quite what I expected.

I did look at it in The Shetland Times before I bought it, but by chance hit on a couple of stories that looked like exactly what I wanted. As it is I'm not disappointed with the book I got, but I am still searching for the right one. Lawrence Tulloch's father, Tom was a noted storyteller and is collected in Scottish Traditional Tales where his authentic voice really comes through - I'm assuming without re-acquainting myself with the introduction that his words were recorded and then transcribed as there are pauses included in the text and the dialect is broad. 

The Lawrence Tulloch collection by contrast has been anglicized for a broader audience, and I guess to fit into the wire series that this book is part of. I can imagine him as being a notable storyteller in person, there's not much sense of his personality here which makes reading this a little bit like eating unseasoned food. Re-reading some of Tom Tulloch's stories before writing this really highlights the difference between storytelling in your own dialect, and in speech which is slightly foreign.

Aside from that, there's a lot to enjoy here, and I'm tempted to collect more of the series in time. This book is full of the kind of thing I was told by our neighbour when I was growing up and have sadly completely forgotten. There are the sort of tall stories we used to hear about life for the antarctic whalers, stories that were well-known jokes, and the supernatural and ghostly tales that I absolutely believed back in the day (Njuggle's especially, which are a lot like Kelpies).

There are more personal local legends passed down, and one about an eagle stealing a child that has versions all over Scotland, Ireland, and further - including in Greek mythology. I don't know if these stories are told as widely as they were when I was a child and there were only 3 channels on T.V. (which also closed down for the night) there was no internet, and you had to do work a bit harder at making your own entertainment. I hope they are, there's a rich legacy of them and when you get to trows, witches, selkies, and finnmen you need to hear those stories whilst you're still young enough to believe them. 

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Claudia Roden's Egyptian Red Lentil Soup

I waited a while to get my hands on Med I left it late to pre-order at a good price and it sold out (briefly) then I couldn't guarantee being at home to take delivery of it, then when I did order it, it took an age to get to me and went around the houses in the process. It arrived yesterday after what felt like an age and very happy I was to see it. As if it wasn't enough that Claudia Roden is one of my absolute food hero's - brilliant food, and writing that opens up worlds for you is a dream combination, it turns out that Med is also a chance to own a bit of artwork by David Cass. I've admired his sea-inspired paintings for a while so having his cover design on the book is a real bonus. 

So far I've mostly just leafed through this book, but one recipe really jumped out at me. The Egyptian Red Lentil Soup. Red Lentil Soup is something I particularly associate with Scotland where it's a staple. I first learnt to make it at school, it's been a go-to comfort recipe ever since. It's also the cheapest thing I know how to cook. 

The super basic Shetland junior high version uses a carrot, half an onion, a handful of red lentils, a little butter or oil, salt, pepper and a stock cube. Sometimes if I'm feeling fancy I might add a little chopped bacon. If I didn't have any I wouldn't worry about using stock either. You soften the onion and carrot, add the lentils to coat them in oil (or butter), salt, pepper, then simmer until the lentils are soft. It's great.

Claudia Roden's Egyptian version adds a couple of cloves of garlic at the beginning, and then lemon juice, ground coriander, ground cumin, and some chilli flakes (optional) 5 minutes before it's ready. These things hardly make the soup more extravagant as I'd almost always have them to hand anyway, they do transform the flavour from something distinctly Scottish to something distinctly laced with cumin (which I adore). I made it for dinner tonight which was extremely welcome on a cool wet autumn evening - it's a good-tempered recipe that needs no more than a few minutes prep and can then be left to simmer away whilst you catch up with other things which is another point in its favour. 

What's really caught my imagination though is this link between these two soups. A language of food that crosses continents and ties the poor together across them - Roden descripes hers as a peasent soup. Med looks to be full of wonderful things which I look forward to exploring, but nothing is going to have the resonance that this red lentil soup has. 

Monday, September 13, 2021

Till Death Do Us Part - John Dickson Carr

I hadn't quite forgotten how hard it is to be on your feet all day, but I'm out of practice at it and currently, all I want to do when I get home is sleep, but when I get home I've got a ton of other things to do (mostly domestic and dull). Carving out time to read before I fall asleep is proving a challenge at the moment - this won't last, I'll soon adjust to my new routine - but meanwhile I'm favouring classic crime as the perfect thing to relax with. 

I'd heard lots of good things about the latest John Dickson Carr from the British Library Crime Classics series so as a break from my Edward Marston binge I picked it up. It didn't disappoint. It opens on a dark and stormy afternoon at the village fete. Dick Markham (successful writer of crime drama) has arrived with his new fiance - Lesley Grant. They're excited for each other but a little bit worried about how another girl, Cynthia, will react to their news. Dick doesn't think he led her on, but Cynthia might not agree. 

From this point onwards Carr goes for it. Lesley shoots a fortune-teller - was it an accident? The fortune-teller claims not and suggests that instead of being the sweet young girl she looks to be she's actually a much married, husband poisoning 40 something. And then the fortune-teller is found dead in a locked room, killed in the way he described Lesley as using for her supposed victims. But was the fortune-teller all he claimed to be and is any of his story true?

Gideon Fell is called in to investigate a situation that's becoming more complicated and outlandish by the moment as Carr liberally applies red herrings, unlikely twists, and gothic atmosphere. This is exactly why I enjoy his books so much. None of it is very likely, and if you stop to think about it too much half it probably isn't possible either - but it doesn't matter. I'm so carried away by the atmosphere that he could introduce just about any unlikely element (and if you've read Castle Skull he can really rise to the challenge) and I'd swallow it. Not every writer could make that work, but Carr does, I think this is because he underpins his wilder flights of fancy with clever details. 

In this case, it's the character of Cynthia who ties everything together. She's hard to work out in a believable way and keeps the tension high. How does she really feel about Dick throwing her over for Lesley - is she as okay with it as she says, or does she want some vengeance for being publically rejected in front of the whole village? Altogether it's vintage Carr and an absolute treat, and now before I fall asleep over my keyboard I'm off to bed with the new Claudia Roden cookbook. 

Saturday, September 11, 2021

The Dragons of Archenfield - Edward Marston

I got lucky in The Works and found another 3 of Edward Marston's Domesday series and have been happily working through them this week. It's coincided with starting a new job at Waterstones so I'm properly immersed in books at the moment (fun) and Marston's light style is about right to come home to with a head stuffed full of till functions, and stock protocols. 

The Dragons of Archenfield is book 3 in the series, a bonus seeing as I'd started with book 2, and follows similar lines - the Domesday book commissioners set off to Hereford this time, where there's trouble with the Welsh, a colourful Archdeacon in a very smelly cloak to deal with, and Ralph Delchard meets a woman he really likes. 

I'm not sure that there's much more to say - the mystery was satisfying with a couple of likely suspects to keep me sort of guessing a good way into the book, although I think the how and why are more important here than the who. 

Marston is good at keeping the period detail to a minimum too, just enough to give a bit of atmosphere, not enough to get bogged down in or to start picking holes in either which would be an unwelcome distraction. 

Altogether I can only repeat what I said about The Ravens of Blackwater - that this is a well crafted book that's solidly entertaining without demanding very much of a tired reader. It's quite formulaic, but the formula works - like when you follow a recipe and get an excellent cake so there's no criticism implied in that, and this series really is proving a good find to me. 

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Vanishing Fleece - Clara Parkes

I'm going to seriously show my knitting ignorance here, but until a mostly American (knitting and textile) based reading group I'm in introduced me to Clara Parkes I'd never heard of her. Turns out she's quite a big name, and Vanishing Fleece is but one of many books she's written about yarn. Based on Vanishing Fleece I'd happily read more of her.

This book follows the journey of a 676 pound bale of Saxon merino wool that Clara has the chance to buy from a small sheep farm in New York State. It's an awkward amount of wool to have on your hands - far more than one person could reasonably use, but not enough to do anything commercial with.

Fortunately, Clara had the connections, and mailing list, to generate interest from individuals who would be prepared to subscribe to her project. From there she decides she'll split her bale into 4 and send each quarter to a different mill to be processed, she also gets some of it dyed. What follows is a lot of information about technical processes which is far more interesting to read than you might think - I certainly found it to be so, and a good general overview of the wool industry in America.

The journey of her bale is meant to be a learning process, she admits to buying 2 more during the process of this project, and I'd like to know what happened to them as a sequel to this project - did she find a milling process that best suited the wool is the biggest question I have?

What I really found inspiring about this book was Clara's advocacy for wool. She knows, as so many knitters and spinners do, that there's a real market for good quality products with an interesting provenance, but banks don't seem interested in financing smaller scale products, and anecdotally seem suspicious of the success of some of the small businesses they encounter. 

The costs for setting up a small-scale but viable mill are not astronomical, and as such I'm wondering why more people aren't doing it. There's very little money for the farmer in selling their raw fleeces - in the UK there have been years where the price of the wool isn't enough to cover the cost of shearing it, but it has to come off the sheep for health purposes. Anybody who's spent £20+ on a skein of something nice (and then realised they'll need more than 1 to even knit a scarf) will wonder at where the value is acquired.

This is not a criticism of those prices - I'm really delighted to see in Shetland that more people are producing and selling their own yarn at prices that represent the work and cost involved in rearing sheep. The knitwear designers who have started their own yarn lines impress me too. It would be great to see more of this kind of thing happening everywhere, and Parkes makes a great case for it. 

Friday, September 3, 2021

The Ravens of Blackwater - Edward Marston

I have a habit of buying 3 paperbacks for £5 from The Works (bargain bookshop chain in the UK) and never quite getting around to reading them so I'm feeling quite pleased with myself that I'd only had The Ravens of Blackwater for around a month before I picked it up last night. I don't quite know why I'm so bad at reading these books - maybe because they're impulse bargain buys rather than something I've been really excited about - and then the more exciting (to me) book comes along, or something that I've promised to write about needs reading. 

Edward Marston's books are not quite what I'd normally pick up either (Georgette Heyer is my historical fiction exception), but I was intrigued by this series after seeing it around in a couple of places and it turned out to be easy to read in the course of an evening which is something I haven't managed with a book of this length for ages, so if the works have more of his titles in stock I'll be picking them up today.

It is sometime late in the 11th century, the Domesday book is being compiled and Ralph Delchard (a veteran of the Battle of Hastings) and Gervase Bret (lawyer) are part of the royal commission sent out to investigate peculiarities in the originally compiled information, handily solving murders as they go. This is the second in the series but worked well as a standalone book.

Marston is good at painting a broad picture of life in early Norman England without getting bogged down in tiresome detail, and his royal commission concept is excellent for moving his detectives around from one place to another where something is clearly wrong. The characters were appealing - the villainous FitzCorbucion family headed by the outrageously evil Hamo FitzCorbucion and seconded by his son Guy (soon murdered) were particularly gruesome, and yet still believable. Ralph and Gervase engage in a constant friendly bickering that builds a happy chemistry between them, and the secondary characters are well drawn too. 

The internet tells me Marston has written over a hundred books (impressive) and I think what really comes across here is his craftsmanship. Everything is done well, and if it didn't demand much depth of thought from me, I wasn't in the mood for that. By the same token, I didn't feel like I was reading something particularly throw away either, so if you're looking for something fun to fill this current run of cold, grey, days and lengthening nights you could do a whole lot worse than pick this up. 

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Dreaming of Rose - Sarah LeFanu

I haven't read Sarah LeFanu's biography of Rose Macaulay, either of the older biographies on her, half of the books by Rose Macaulay I own, or indeed any more than two of her many books. I haven't read any of Sarah LeFanu's other books either and am not generally a fan of biographies so this book should have been a hard sell. I am a big fan of Handheld Press though so when they suggested I might like to read it I said yes.

Dreaming of Rose is Sarah LeFanu's journal (or at least the edited version that she thought fit for publication) that she kept over the years that she wrote her Macaulay book - it ends in 2002 with an epilogue from 2012 when a previously sealed file of correspondence held in the Wren Library in Cambridge was opened. I'm not generally a fan of published journals either, but I loved this one which is clearly a whole lot of exceptions coming together to prove a rule. 

Part of the fascination is in following the process of writing a scholarly work - the ups and downs, negative and positive reactions from peers, and how you actually live whilst you're doing something like this. For LeFanu this isn't altogether easy as she juggles different contracts and part-time roles with the occasional grant that allows her to go further afield for her research. When she gets a really decent grant I was right there with her celebrating. 

Then there's the way that Rose gets into Sarah's dreams, hence the title of the book, and another indicator of how intense the process of writing a biography can be. Add to that the difficulty of dealing with living relatives, friends, and connections, and an idea of how all-consuming the process is becomes clear. People who are happy to help one day are not the next. There are doubts about how a family member might be seen, family legends that become questionable as a fuller picture emerges - and the difficulty of negotiating all of this when you need to maintain people's trust and goodwill.

Apart from her relationship with Rose, the portrait of Sarah is also beguiling. She had been an editor at the Women's Press for several years, worked for the BBC, and in academia, so there are odd bits of gossip to be picked up here that throw unexpected sidelights in names that are half-familiar, or that connect literary dots. It meant a lot of happy googling whilst I read and a few interesting avenues to explore later. 

There are also some interesting sidelights in upcoming Handheld books including Marjorie Grant's Latchkey Ladies - maybe I will need to read a Macauley biography, after all, it's certainly made me want to read more Macaulay - perhaps starting with Personal Pleasures, Essays on Enjoying Life (also just published by Handheld, and now I see they have Gerald O'Donovan's Vocations too, published a couple of years ago and I'm curious about that as well. Publishing Dreaming of Rose is clearly a smart marketing move!

Seriously though, it's a surprising page-turner with a lot to offer - including a sense of suspense - that I didn't really expect, and the final chapter about the potential revelations (or lack of them) in the newly opened file is fabulous. Absolutely worth reading if you're interested in Rose Macauley and her contemporaries, Sarah LeFanu (and her contemporaries), or the process of writing and what it takes. 

Monday, August 30, 2021

Simple Fire; Selected Short Stories - George Mackay Brown, edited by Malachy Tallack

This is George Mackay Brown's centenary year and amongst the general celebrations (Orkney Libraries A Hat For George project seems a particularly apt way to remember him and meditate on his work) are the release of two new edited collections of his work from Polygon - Simple Fire, a collection of hos short stories selected by Malachy Tallack, and Carve the Runes, a selection of his poetry chosen by Kathleen Jamie. I've always been on the fence about Mackay Brown's poetry and novels, but I'm starting to think I really should get a copy of Carve the Runes, partly just to see what Jamie has chosen. 

However ambivalent I might be about his novels (I failed to read Greenvoe a couple of times and then Beside the Ocean of Time), and whatever doubts I might have about the appeal of his poetry for me I love his short stories. The combination of his style and subject matter with the format is hard to beat.

When I got this collection I had only intended to skim through it, I've read all the short story anthologies before and I thought it would be mostly interesting to see what Malachy Tallack had selected. I forgot that as soon as I started reading, becoming totally absorbed in George's world again, only remembering towards the end of the book to consider the difference between a GMB selection and somebody else's choice of his work. 

George Mackay Brown revisited the same themes over and again throughout his writing career. He deals with Orkney, his contemporary world, the past of his childhood, and a deeper past - with occasional forays into an imagined future. Orkney and his catholic faith give him everything he needs to write about - as well it might and these stories have aged well. As an introduction to his work, this is an excellent place to start.

Several of the stories here have an autobiographical edge - men who suffer from bronchial problems (as Brown would throughout his life after an early bout of TB), a vein of depression, religious and mystical elements, and issues around alcoholism. Although Brown claims he was never an alcoholic he certainly had a complicated relationship with alcohol, as did Stella Cartwright, the woman he was briefly engaged to. (You don't need to read a biography to know this - a quick look at Wikipedia fills in the main details). 

Choosing those stories with autobiographical elements changes the emphasis here slightly from the original collections. It centers the past that Mackay Brown writes about - the pre-war, pre-oil world that changed slowly so that the childhood he remembers wouldn't have been very different to his parents or grandparents in its rhythms and expectations retains its nostalgia and gains something else here. Maybe that's the result of the last couple of Covid years and our own re-centering of values - we've all had the chance to appreciate community again, and question the worth of city life when so much has been closed. 

It's maybe that another decade has passed since I last read these stories and in that time I've come to have more of the same sort of nostalgia for the world that GMB describes as he had. This isn't the world that I knew precisely, but it's in line with the one my grandparent's generation described, and collectively we're definitely reaching a point where we're wondering how much damage progress has done - James Rebanks English Pastoral has something of the same mood about it as some of these stories despite being an in an entirely different genre. 

I also love the way that GMB loved Orkney and its stories and the way he shares the richness he found in the place. If you believe in this sort of thing you could consider it a thin place - certainly where time is concerned. The past feels very close to the surface in Orkney, it's not much of a stretch of the imagination to feel that its stories are in the air just waiting to be breathed in and written out

Thursday, August 26, 2021

The Black Moth - Georgette Heyer

I've been reading this book as part of the Georgette Heyer Readalong on Twitter, where we have mixed feelings about it but have raced ahead to the end because I wanted to write about it today - the publication day for the centenary edition hardback. 

I'm in the enjoying the book for what it is camp, and what it is, is quite remarkable. Georgette Heyer was 19 when she published this, her first novel. Written to entertain her brother whilst he was ill it was presumably told rather than read, to begin with, which I think might have some bearing on how certain parts read now. I'm also assuming that it was based on books, plays, and films that were Heyer family favourites. 'The Black Moth' has remained in print for all of its 100-year life span.

It isn't Heyer's best work - it hardly could be given that she went on to write for another 50 years - it certainly isn't her worst (I have a feeling that might be the suppressed 'The Great Roxhythe' of which I once read a few pages online and quickly gave up on). For a first book by a teenager, it's amazing though, full of prototypes that would later become Heyer standards and indicators of how very good a writer she would be.

The plot is fairly lightweight and thoroughly over the top - the lost heir to an Earldom is terrorising the roads of southern England disguised as a highwayman (though he will not attack women, children, or old men) after everybody thought he cheated at cards. His younger brother is feeling bad about it and dealing with an expensive and capricious wife. His wife's brother is merrily plotting to kidnap and rape every nice young woman he meets (when he's not trying to borrow money) and somehow it all works out happily after a comedy Irishman turns up in deepest Sussex.

The Irishness of Sir Miles O'Hara JP is one of the things that was probably hilarious read in a family circle in 1921, but which doesn't work particularly well in a book group discussion now (apart from anything else it doesn't make a lot of sense). When Sir Miles makes an appearance I remind myself that Heyer was 19 when she wrote this. There are other issues that I'll come onto in a minute.

First, it seems worth spending a moment considering the excellence of this centenary edition. I wrote a post about this when I first got the book, and further acquaintance with it has only improved my opinion. I would love to see all of Heyer's books get this treatment. I'm old enough to appreciate the larger type as well as the handsome cover. I really appreciate the introduction, after-words, and the classification of her other titles. 

The latter is a particularly nice touch if you're newly navigating these books - pro tip, the classic adventures (Beauvallet, Royal Escape, An Infamous Army, and the Spanish Bride) and the Medieval Classics (Simon the Coldheart, The Conqueror, and My Lord John) or best left to the committed fans. Or in the case of an Infamous Army and The Spanish Bride, to people with a real interest in the Penninsula Wars and the battle of Waterloo. 

Phillipa Gregory's thoughtful introduction is probably my favourite thing (after the cover which I think is delicious) about this edition though. There's a lot to unpick, most of which I agree with, and some I'm not so sure about. Gregory makes the distinction that Heyer is creating historical fantasy rather than historical fiction (fair) and discusses how she doesn't write about the terrible poverty that followed the industrial revolution - but does have a heroine take a chimney sweep to the dentist amongst other examples (in another book).

In 'The Black Moth' there's an almost throw-away reference to a character being given a black page boy - a fashion statement in employees. The book is set in the 1750s so we know this probably means slave, later what I think is the same page boy presents her with a pet monkey which reinforces that perception, but Heyer makes no other comment about it. The result is we're left to do our own research and draw our own conclusions about the actual history, which is one of the things that really work about her books for me. When I first read this aged around 13 I knew very little about slavery, but it's a detail that always niggled, nothing could more effectively get me to learn. 

Gregory says Heyer is categorically not a feminist, and this is where I'm not so sure. She's not a feminist in the contemporary sense, and while she pushes the boundaries of what a romance novel is her heroines still always meet a man that we hope they'll live happily ever after with - but even here in her first book there's a masterly description of the heroine (around Heyer's age) being pursued by a predatory older man that is instantly recognisable and could very easily have been a Me Too statement. It's also offered without comment, but in a story a teenage girl was telling her brothers.

This will be a constant theme in Heyer's writing, in book, after book, she describes the limitations imposed on women and exposes the hypocrisy in the double standards her heroines have to deal with. In her own life, she ended up supporting her mother, brothers, and for a long time her husband, with her writing. Heyer and her heroines worked within the constraints of her society, but I think she's pushing against its boundaries every time she points out the inherent unfairness of a situation and with the type of agency she gives her heroines. Maybe she wasn't a feminist, but she certainly made me into one.

So on the whole I have no hesitation in recommending this - it's fun on its own terms, although very much of its time - perhaps don't read it if you find old-fashioned attitudes about race offensive (there are some dodgy bits about what it's acceptable for rich men to get away with too). It's also fascinating to see how Heyer starts, understand the elements that were always present in her writing, and see how other things will develop through out her career. It is also, and this bears repeating, the Most Lovely edition.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Murder by the Book - Edited by Martin Edwards

August has been remarkably kind to me this year right down to throwing some particularly nice review books my way. 'Murder by the Book, Mysteries for Bibliophiles' was waiting for me when I got back from Shetland, and whilst there were other things I should have read first I couldn't resist diving into it.

It was a sound decision, it's a collection that doesn't put a foot wrong as far as I'm concerned. This is partly because like the recent Guilty Creatures anthology the links to the overall theme are sometimes slight - it might be that a book is a clue or a writer is plotting no good, or that a mystery writer turns detective, occasionally the hapless writer is the victim. There are instances where the writers are clearly having considerable fun with their brief and others which throw some unexpectedly personal sidelights onto their writers. 

It's also fair to say that I really enjoy books about books - the perfect companion volume to this is The Haunted Library edited by Tanya Kirk and also from the British Library team. It's got some (to me at any rate) genuinely scary stories in it, so 'Murder by the Book' would provide some light relief to go alongside it.

I was asked if I could focus on one particular story for this review; The Strange Case of the Megatherium Thefts' by S. C. Roberts, to which the answer was fair enough, yes. I did wonder what I'd do if I really didn't like it (could happen) but as it stands I enjoyed it a lot, and to my mind, it's one of the most interesting entries in the book - if not quite my favourite.

S. C. Roberts was a prominent bookman, Secretary to Cambridge University Press for a quarter of a century before becoming Master of Pembrooke College, and Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University. He was also a committed Sherlock Holmes fan and a leading exponent of Sherlockian scholarship in this country (I'm shamelessly cribbing from the introduction here).

'The Strange Case of the Megatherium Thefts' was initially privately printed in 1945 and is an homage to Conan Doyle's style. It's a charming story and contains the only crime in the book that I could well imagine committing. I'm not alone in this as it was apparently inspired by a real-life crime in the Athenaeum Club. In it Holmes is consulted by a professor about the strange disappearance of a number of library books, who has been taking them, and why is duly revealed. 

I have mixed feelings about writers using other authors' characters. We build up very personal ideas of who a character is, and too often in when another writer takes them on we get their vision and it isn't close enough to our own to be satisfying. There's also the Ask A Policeman risk. Here members of the Detection Club swapped characters between themselves creating affectionate but merciless parodies of each other's work. It's really enjoyable but I haven't been able to take Mrs. Bradley or Lord Peter Wimsey seriously since. 

Roberts makes a good job of Holmes though, he does it with affection, a light touch, and without parody - it's a successful hommage. The bookish references multiply too which is what I really enjoyed here - there's the obvious co-opting of a fictional character, the bookish nature of the crime, and then there's the partial list of stolen books, which include Three Men in a Boat and The Wrong Box - it's a nice comic touch. (Those are the two I've read, both are comic masterpieces). 

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

The Widow of Bath - Margot Bennett

In the end, this was the only book I managed to read whilst I was away - I had high hopes for getting through lots of things, but between the excitement of getting engaged (that's not going to get old for me any time soon) and trying to catch up with a few people and spend time with family and the friends I was travelling with time got away from me. That's as inevitable as the fact that I'd buy more books than I packed - so why do I even pack books plural? 

'The Widow of Bath' was written in 1952 which my Crime Classics spreadsheet tells me is a vintage year as far as I'm concerned - there's a discernable shift between the war and immediate post-war period and the start of the 1950s when the mood and tone get distinctly darker. it's the difference between looking back and looking forward I think, and I wonder what our own post covid world will throw at us in this respect. 

The book opens with Hugh Everton, determinedly drinking in a second rate hotel on the south coast where all is not quite as it should be, even for a post-war British seaside hotel. Before he knows quite where he's at he bumps into an ex-girlfriend, and then her aunt by marriage - a femme fatale with who he has also had an affair. She's accompanied by her husband, a couple of friends, and brings an atmosphere you could cut a knife with.

Hugh drifts along with her suggestion to come home with them, and before he knows it the husband, Judge Bath has been shot whilst the rest of the party were downstairs playing cards together. This is trouble for Hugh who has a shady sort of past, and whilst it's hard to see who could have done it, why can see plenty of reasons why people might want to have done it. 

Up to his neck in it, Hugh starts investigating some of the loose ends around him, which mostly makes things worse, but as almost everybody seems intent on threatening him he doesn't really have a lot of choices. It's a clever book with a plot that at first seems surprisingly current (spoiler alert - it's about people smuggling) but which on reflection makes it clear that the state of the world hasn't changed as much as we might like in the last 70+ years. 

It's also the kind of book I'd love to see get adapted for television, instead of yet another Agatha Christie getting pulled into a shape it doesn't really fit. You want contemporary issues with real darkness behind them in period costume - this is the perfect vehicle for it. Christie is a wonderful writer, but she's not the only one and this book is a cracker with real noir atmosphere and dialogue, along with some absolutely perfect scene-setting descriptions.

Bennet is a master at filling a reasonably well to do seaside town with a sense of menace, and the way she unravels Hugh Everton for us is brilliant. Martin Edwards compare Margot Bennett favourably to Raymond Chandler in his introduction - it's an assessment I heartily agree with.

Monday, August 23, 2021

A Short History of the World According to Sheep - Sally Coulthard

I read this one as part of a reading group, and more than a few chapters in a rush during a post-lunch dip on a Saturday afternoon when I was desperately trying to stay awake. This may have slightly coloured my view as it didn't do the best job of keeping me awake. 

It's the kind of book that I think is meant to be bought mostly as a present, maybe for people who have just moved to the country. There are bits of it that are interesting, and Coulthard's style is engaging, but it's very light and when I went to chase up references they didn't amount to much. This coupled with some basic errors or things that were really vague made it hard to trust what I was reading - it's a stocking filler kind of book. Worth a read if you know nothing about sheep, textiles, or their respective histories, but frustrating if you do know a bit about them and want to know more.

I sort of enjoyed the punning chapter titles (Spinning a Yarn, Mills and Boom etc) but again they're perhaps an indicator that the book isn't meant to be taken tremendously seriously. I think if I'd read this quickly, perhaps on a wet afternoon with nothing else much available (and it also feels like the sort of book you might find on the shelf of the nicer kind of B&B) I would be kinder about it.

Reading it 3 chapters a week with a bunch of the most delightfully critical people you could hope to meet meant that between us I don't think we missed a single flaw! A quick look at amazon shows me a lot of really enthusiastic reviews as well, which is now making me feel slightly churlish, and I certainly enjoyed Coulthard's style enough to pick up another one of her books - I'd just make sure I read enough of it to be sure it was what I wanted before buying. So. Light, enjoyable enough if sheep have previously been a closed book, but not one for the in depth material. 

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Aberdeen and Shetland

Today is my friend Clover's birthday, and she tells me it's not a proper summer without Shetland pictures, so these are basically for her, and my last photo dump now that the excitement of the last couple of weeks is starting to settle down. The Aberdeen pictures are mostly from around Kings College, Old Aberdeen, and Union Street.

This one is from the window of my cabin on the ferry, it got a lot rougher the moment we passed that lighthouse and got out of the harbour confines.

The sign says Spital under the ivy, it's a very Scottish name, I've seen it in the Borders too, I love the tiled Aberdeen street signs, though a lot more of them have lost there pointing fingers since my student days there.

This well worn stone was part of a wheel house at Jarlshof.
Another view through a salty ferry window - we saw a fin whale not ling after this
Possibly the most photographed place in Shetland