Thursday, December 30, 2021

Happy New Year

A day early, but the sentiment is the same. It's been a full on kind of a week. Back at work on boxing day, over to Nottingham working today (a Much bigger branch) which was fun but tiring. Endless paranoia about omicron which seems like enough to cause a symptom mimicking headache, and a hundred and one other things to do.

Like most of the rest of the country, I'm not sure which day of the week it is either, but only because I've been at work for all of them and am missing the chance to be a little bit bored, read books, and do jigsaw puzzles. This has to be the hardest week of the year in retail when so many of us long for a rest and just don't get it. 

Anyway, when I finally do get a bit of time off (I don't know when that's going to be) I have a jigsaw, a magnificent pile of Christmas and birthday books to read, and after many hours throwing yarn around, I think I've settled on colours for a new jumper which I'm looking forward to beginning. 

Meanwhile, a happy and prosperous New Year to all who read this, with an extra dose of goodwill aimed at those who work over holidays, or who really struggle with not working. Both things can be hard to deal with. I hope 2022 brings us a respite from the last two years of covid related worry. 

Friday, December 24, 2021

Sunless Solstice - edited by Tanya Kirk and Lucy Evans

 It’s been a hectic month between work, home jobs, and mum breaking her ankle, and I wish I had more than 2 days off over Christmas (back to work on Boxing Day) but it’s finally calm, we’re listening to carols from Kings (in-between the dog destroying stuffed toys and making me retrieve their squeak from under whatever bit of furniture she’s jammed them) and drinking a very nice fizz. 

When not walking, or otherwise attending on the dog, I’ve spent the day finishing Sunless Solstice, the Christmas weird collection from the British Library. It’s been the perfect choice. I haven’t come across a Tanya Kirk collection I haven’t loved, this one is no exception - I don’t know how the work was divided with Lucy Evans, but I’ll also be looking for anything with her name on it in the future. 

There are odd things (Murial Spark) sweet Christmas stories (Hugh Walpole), sad and menacing things (Daphne du Maurier) and a whole lot in between from slightly camp to properly chill giving. Christmas is the proper time for ghost stories, and the Christmas collections from this series are favourites - all 3 of them have the right mix of moods to see you through the festive season.

Meanwhile I hope anybody reading this is doing alright, and has something nice planned for tomorrow, especially on the book front. A worrying number of friends and acquaintances have tested COVID positive, although so far they’re all getting through without really serious complications, but after the last couple of years it’s not what anybody wants for Christmas - so try and stay safe and well if you can and have a happy Christmas. 

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Advent (again) - Anja Dunk

The last Sunday of advent, and another two types of biscuit made after a day at work, I can't help myself but write about this book again. It'll make another appearance when I get round to doing a top ten list for the year, but you've probably already got a sense of how much I'm enjoying it. 

I've planned to try the German biscuit thing for a few years now without getting round to it, but whatever happens, it's firmly a part of my tradition now. I could probably squeeze in a few more bakes before the weekend, but having made the schnapps (brilliant) in quantity, 2 batches of Springerle, 2 types of lebkuchen, endless roasted cinnamon almonds, almond marzipan crescents, and hazelnut crescents I might have to stop now, however much I want to carry on.

I've learned a lot of things. The big one is that all this baking is easier to fit into a working day than I had imagined (definitely easier than mince pies, which I also love and haven't had enough of this year). Most of these need a resting time so it's a quick enough job to throw the ingredients together before bed to deal with in the morning, or even a few days later in the case of the Lebkuchen, or before work ready for when I get home - and then it's just a matter of rolling out or shaping the dough and baking it for around 10-12 minutes in most cases. 

Getting other people together to cut out the Springerle would be fun if I had more molds, and every biscuit I've made would be great to do with children, especially as the rewards come quickly from the oven. There are plenty of things that can be made vegan or gluten-free which are good options to have, and recipes like the almond marzipan crescents are perfect for using up Christmas cake leftovers.

Everybody who has tried them has loved the roasted almonds - they're a winning recipe if ever I found one, with the Schnapps coming in a close second. With time I'm sure I'll find other things in here which are as universally loved.

The most interesting thing for me though has been the Lebkuchen recipes and the Springerle. The ammonia for the Springerle didn't smell anything like as bad as I expected and they're not like anything else I've ever tasted - simple, but much more than the sum of their parts.

I hadn't really appreciated how many types of Lebkuchen there are either - and the half-dozen types here are not an exhaustive list. The two I made are distinctly different, and also different from the recipe I've used before. I made the effort to get hold of baker's potassium for these (not much of an effort, I ordered it via amazon marketplace and it arrived promptly a couple of days later) which was definitely worthwhile. The texture is lovely and I'm really happy with both types I made, which are distinctly different from each other both in ingredients and end results, even if they're obviously related.

Anyway, it's a book full of joy, and I'm going to miss baking from it for the next 11 months.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

The Chianti Flask - Marie Belloc Lowndes

My Second nomination for Cross Examining Crime's reprint of the year is a slightly odd mystery from the British Library Crime Classics series - it defies easy categorisation, it's not quite a whodunnit or even a whydunnit, it is arguably a romance, although the romance is the least interesting part of the book. It is however a compelling look at what happens to one woman after she's accused of her husband's murder. 

Laura Dousland fell on hard times as a young woman when her father died having lost all the family money. She hasn't been educated to do much but makes a reasonable living as an old-fashioned sort of governess who can be relied upon to teach the daughters of the more recently rich to behave like old money. 

Laura's last employer, the benevolently despotic Alice Hayward, persuades her to marry a school friend of her husband's, who is infatuated with the much younger woman. The age gap is a good 30 years and Laura does not much like Fordish Dousland. But he is persistent, as is her friend, and her options aren't great so she does indeed marry him.

We learn all this along the way, when the book opens Laura is on trial, Fordish Dousland has been poisoned, and there's an odd mystery around a disappeared chianti flask. The rat poison that did for him was almost certainly taken with the wine, but what happened to the bottle?

Laura is quickly acquitted and the body of the book deals with her attempts to come to terms with all she's been through. At the same time, she's falling in love with a well-to-do doctor who gave evidence on her behalf and is now treating her, he's falling equally hard in love with her. The twist at the end isn't entirely surprising, but it's a good one nonetheless (and at the slight risk of this being a spoiler, the biggest mystery about the Chianti flask is why anyone tried to hide it in the first place).

Class is a theme throughout this book, most of the characters are upper class, and there's a good bit of discussion about how a woman who has stood trial for murder can fit back in socially now that she's notorious. It's interesting to compare this with Dorothy L. Sayers, Harriet Vane books. Strong Poison came out in 1930, Have His Carcass in 1932, and Gaudy Night the same year as The Chianti Flask (1935). Laura and Harriet are more or less of an age, and it seems reasonable to assume that Marie Belloc Lowndes would have been familiar with Sayers work. These are very different books, but both have a feminist slant that makes a comparison worthwhile.

It's the portrayal of women, their lives, and the limitations they face - especially in Laura's case that make this book so interesting. Laura, Alice Hayward, and Mrs Scrutton - they all jump off the page. All are flawed, human, and compelling. There's a lot to love about this book, which feels like something quite out of the usual way.

Friday, December 17, 2021

The Golden Treasury of Scottish Verse

I only got two books for my birthday, so I bought myself some (and some before then, and before then too) and am now on a self-imposed ban until the New Year. Nobody at work believes I can make it two weeks without buying something which is an extra incentive to make it this very short period of time without giving in. Staff discount makes it hard to resist - but mum asked me to pick myself a good selection as Christmas presents and I've gathered quite the backlog so I really do need to stop for a while.

'The Golden Treasury of Scottish Verse' edited by Kathleen Jamie, Don Paterson, and Peter Mackay was irresistible, it turned up at work yesterday (nobody was surprised it was for me) and I've had the chance to have a bit of a look at it. It looks like a big book online but was both thinner and lighter than I expected - and then almost magically contains far more than I expected. It's an absolute bonus when a hardback turns out to be paperback light to handle. 

I really like a good poetry anthology - and by good, I mean one that works for the reader, as this one does for me. There's a good proportion of things I'm familiar with (hello Robert Burns and Hugh MacDiarmid particularly) and plenty that I'm not. I've found a couple of new favourites already and will continue reading with enthusiasm over the coming months.

Poetry is a tricky thing to write about, although it's easier to say why I like an anthology rather than talk about my response to a single writer's work. What I like so much about this one is the way it showcases the richness of Scottish creativity. These are writers of all sorts - some are internationally renowned, some are translated from the Gaelic, some feel fairly obscure. There are over 300 poems ranging from the early medieval period to the present day, and that's a lot of territory to explore. 

Some look inwards towards Scotland and the affairs of the poets day, others just happen to be by poets connected with Scotland - and that range is why I'm so excited about this collection and being able to spend time enjoying it. The cover is also really pretty.

Well worth investigating, and seeing as it's that time of year, an excellent potential present if you have anybody in your life who loves Scotland or poetry. 

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

December ramble

Time is flying past, adjusting back to full-time work is quite a lot to take on board, especially as Waterstones doesn't go in for Bank holidays and is only closed on Christmas day. The only day off I have between now and Christmas eve is Saturday and whilst the hours are okay, it's still an exhausting prospect. More so because I won't be able to take my traditional week off in January, and don't know when I'll see a holiday again. That's a concern at the moment because currently there's no one to stop my mother with her broken ankle from trying to climb stepladders and do other foolhardy things.

I've been getting up at around 7.30/8 am and not really stopping until about midnight and there still seems to be a mountain of things to organise, although wedding invitations have now gone out with Christmas cards (together because whilst I'm not cheap, neither are stamps). I am not feeling Christmassy at all - which I think is mostly down to a fairly grim news cycle, Omicron is a definite concern.

It's a combination of seeing too many people in the shop who can't be bothered to wear face masks or noticeably use hand sanitizer - I have no polite words for the ones who want to stand really close and touch me (pat on the arm sort of thing) but they could really do with backing off, and the symptom list. Symptoms include night sweats, a feeling of fatigue, a scratchy throat, headaches, and muscle aches. If you could show me a middle-aged woman working in retail (we spend a lot of our day shouting at people in queues who don't seem to realise they could be paying and going which gives you both a banging headache and a soar throat by lunchtime) who isn't experiencing all of these things I'd be impressed. 

I'm thoroughly vaccinated against covid and flu, as are all my family. The biggest excitement of the last week (including my birthday) has been finding a really satisfactory dressing gown in Joules (ankle length, snuggly, not bulky, good pockets, no annoying hood) which tells you everything you need to know about how much socializing I'm engaging in. I'm not overly worried, but there is still worry.

Meanwhile, I'm still happily working my way through Anja Dunk's 'Advent', making one lot of Lebkuchen dough tonight and planning another one for tomorrow. I had meant to really push the boat out on German biscuits for the last two Christmases but in 2019 I almost certainly had covid (blood tests say I've had it, that was the last time I was noticeably ill), and last year we were either in lockdown or expecting to be and it didn't happen. Anja's book is proving to be the highlight of December, and given that so few people are sending Christmas cards, easily the most festive thing I've got going on. I can't recommend this book highly enough - it really is fantastic. 

Saturday, December 11, 2021

Cinderella Goes to the Morgue - Nancy Spain

I got lucky with this book. When I signed up for Kate's reprint of the year award and chose it I hadn't actually read it - it hadn't been released at that point, but I really enjoyed 'Death Goes on Skis' last year and so I took a chance. 'Cinderella Goes to the Morgue' is even better.

This may partly be because I had an idea what to expect from Nancy Spain this time, although I also think this is a more assured book than 'Death Goes on Skis' with jokes that land better, although the same chaotic energy is very much in evidence.

It's also a gift of a Christmas mystery. Miriam Birdseye and Natasha Nevkorina (ex revue star and ballerina) are in Newchester just before Christmas - we're never told why they're in the provinces and unemployed but as they're quickly swallowed into a pantomime it doesn't much matter. Natasha replaces a drunk ballerina and Miriam steps into the tights of Prince Charming when the original actress suffers a fatal accident (or is it an accident).

Pantomime is the perfect backdrop for a Nancy Spain mystery - they have the same energy, with lots of hideous characters, punning jokes, and a sense of barely restrained anarchy. As the plot unfolds the villains will get their comeuppance and the hero's set off into the sunset at the end. There are all sorts of revelations along the way, none of it is terribly serious - apart from the deaths which are touched on, but not treated, lightly. 

The best reasons to read this book though are for the slapstick elements, the set pieces, and the roller coaster fun of it. Nancy Spain is a classic comic writer rather than a classic crime writer. Her mysteries arguably don't work particularly well as mysteries; it doesn't matter - she's poking fun at the genre, but doing it with affection and in that light, there couldn't be a better combination than a murderous pantomime at Christmas. It's exactly the escapism I can enthusiastically recommend. 

The best jokes rely on timing, and the timing of this reprint is perfect, which is why I say vote for it. There might be better mysteries, and better plots in this year's set of nominations, but there won't be better jokes or a better candidate to turn into a traditional and annual read!

Friday, December 10, 2021

Final Jumper Update

Another unplanned absence, but this time I have excuses - my mum fell and broke her ankle in two places on Tuesday which has been stressful for everybody (mostly her) and I've been trying to replan things so I can help her a bit more. I've also been knitting hard whilst it was cold so I could wear this...

Back in late May, early June, I started knitting my first jumper. I raced through the body of it, finishing it in July, but stalled seriously after that. It got hot, and somehow there was never time to sit down with the sleeves - the increases demanded just a little bit more concentration than seemed to come easily, and then I got a job which seriously eats into knitting time. 

I still have a few ends to sew in and bits to do but the jumper is washed, and drying on a board as I type. It's longer than I expected - I didn't need to add in an extra round of motifs (a good thing to know for the future) and rather too big for my board - but at least it's drying nicely on it. I gave up on grafting dark colours together and cheated by using a 3 needle bind off - but it's meant to be a workaday type of jumper so I'm not worried about that.

I overcame my fear of steeks (it's a nasty moment taking a pair of scissors to something you've worked on for months for the first time) although I still don't much like them - I'm tempted to knit flat, back and forth, another time. The biggest thing though is knowing that I actually do have the patience to take on bigger projects and that with a bit of planning I'll stay happy enough with my colour choices. 

That's not a bad takeaway even without something warm to wear. There are tweaks I would have made to the colours if I'd been able to buy more yarn when I started - more to do with the order they're in than the actual colours - but overall it works for me as is. I'm already thinking about what my next jumper might look like - maybe something lace based and with a bit more shaping, and for all it's faults and flaws I'm proud of the one I've actually made.

Sunday, December 5, 2021

More Advent Baking

I've been running around doing a few things this weekend - I've finally almost finished the second sleeve on my jumper, walked mum's dog several times, started candying orange slices, and tried a couple of biscuit recipes from 'Advent'.

It's hard to overstate how much I love this book, and how much fun I'm having with it, although the stains the cover of my copy is accumulating are a significant clue. I made Almond and Marzipan crescents and Springerle. I'm fairly sure both recipes are also in Luisa Weiss's 'Classic German Baking - the Springerle certainly are because I've wanted to make them since seeing them in there.

It took a s

econd book to give me the push to buy the baker's ammonia though - cheaply available via Scandikitchen, it wasn't difficult to get, just needed some planning. The internet provided the aniseeds as well which turned out to be harder to source locally than I expected. 

This has been fun baking. The Springerle dough was unlike anything I've ever made before (always interesting) and the almond crescents will be a useful recipe for using up left over marzipan from Christmas cake decorating - there always is some and it always passes it's best before date sometime in May when I have no use for it.

The main thing for me though is that this sort of making helps me hold onto December as it flies by, and the sense of this being a time to celebrate and enjoy. 

Friday, December 3, 2021

Naomi Novik - A Deadly Education

I enjoyed Naomi Novak's standalone novels, 'Uprooted' and 'Spinning Silver' but spent a while dithering over 'A Deadly Education' as the premise of teenagers trying to survive in a magical school didn't really appeal to me. Until this week when I sort of was in the mood for something in the fantasy line from a reliable author.

I'm glad I read it, I really enjoyed it, and as they appear in paperback (book 2 in the series, 'The Last Graduate' is out in hardback at the moment, paperback in May, book 3 to follow) I'll read the rest. My only real quibble is that they're sold along with the science fiction and fantasy novels, and like 'Uprooted' and 'Spinning Silver', I really think they belong in the young adult section. Maybe that's seen as limiting, but in a book where all the protagonists are 16/17, it seems a better fit. 

Aside from, or even including the categorization, this has everything I've come to expect from Novik. She's a brilliant worldbuilder, especially when it comes to the logic behind how magic works. The main character is El, a powerful witch with an affinity for dark magic. The school, which is not a benign place, is trying its level best to turn her into a mass murderer, El is resisting, however tempting it is to wipe everyone out. 

There are no teachers, no contact with the outside world, and no escape - the reason children end up in the school is that they're even more vulnerable outside of it, and if they survive their education they have a chance to form alliances, and possibly even join an enclave of powerful wizards where they'll be protected and privileged.

It's not looking good for El, she has the power, but nobody likes her so she's a definite outcast until she meets Orian Lake. Probably as powerful in his own way he's the golden boy hero who is throwing the school ecosystem out of whack - he's rescued so many people that the monsters that infest it are getting exceptionally hungry. 

As he and El get closer she begins to make a couple of other friends and change her mind about what she wants from her future - the iniquities of the enclave system become more grating to her. Orian, who has as bleak a time as a chosen one as El does being an unchosen one also begins to question more about a social order he's never had any reason to think about before. Altogether it's an excellent breakdown of how privilege works and for whom. 

El's narrative is a fun place to be as well, everything is shown from her point of view in something that reads like a cross between a diary and a conversation with the reader. She's sarcastic, often funny, self-absorbed (necessary for survival) and an all-round decent portrait of a teenager - almost an adult, still vulnerable. I want to know what happens to her next, see how she develops, and see what happens to he friends she's making - and what more is there to ask from a story?