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?

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

The Christmas Tree is Up

It's been a remarkably festive end to November today. I've made the first mince pies of the year, visited The Snowman and the Snowdog exhibition at Newarke Houses in Leicester, bought and decorated my Christmas tree, and even had a present in the form of an exciting looking review book from the British Library to open. Altogether, not a bad day.

Along with half the country I've taken to putting my tree up ever earlier, my excuse, if I need one, this time is that this was the day I could get a lift to a garden centre and back. But also I figure if I'm going to buy a tree I want to enjoy it for as long as possible, and heaven knows the month needs a bit of sparkle. Not least to reconcile me to the intermittent readings from my smart meter which seem to be saying that electricity is costing me almost twice what it did last year. About £5 a day for a one-bedroom flat is frightening.

The Snowman and the Snowdog exhibition, which is on at Newarke Houses until February was charming. It's a set of drawings from the 2012 film spread over a couple of rooms. It doesn't take long to look around, and the pictures are hung to be seen from child height, which is a nice touch. Like the rest of the museum, it's free, and it's a real mood lifter.  Honestly recommended for anybody with a fondness for the Snowman who finds themselves in Leicester, I'll be going back and trying to take anybody who's even half willing with me - also, unlike the garden centre, I had the museum to myself which is definitely a bonus with the current covid news. 

I'm planning a big baking session for later in the week - time to get to grips with some of the biscuits in Anja Dunk's 'Advent', but have to say the electricity revelation has shocked me a bit and I'm seriously wondering if I can afford to turn the oven on. I can, fortunately, but this is going to be a seriously hard winter for a lot of people and this has really bought it home. For the first time since I lived in houses with scant open fires and no central heating, radiators are assuming luxury status again.  

Monday, November 29, 2021

The Love Hypothesis - Ali Hazelwood

I'm so cold that I'm typing with gloves and a scarf on as well as the biggest wooly jumper I own. I've spent most of my free time over the last couple of days trying to finish the second sleeve of an even bigger wooly jumper I'm working on so that I can retreat into it. I'm also trying to make room for the Christmas tree I'm collecting tomorrow (early, I know, but it's when I can get a lift, and why not enjoy it for as long as possible?). All in all, there hasn't been much reading lately, and what I have read has been on the light side. 

This includes Ali Hazelwood's 'The Love Hypothesis. Until I started working in a bookshop the concept of Book Tok had entirely passed me by, and honestly, I still haven't engaged with it much. However, it's a foolish bookseller who would ignore it because it's really driving sales. So much so that the average age of our customers has dropped considerably, and honestly I'm all for teenage girls being an economic power in the industry. 

'The Love Hypothesis' has been a hit online, along with Madeline Millar's 'The Song of Achilles'. I chose Ali Hazelwood's book to see what all the fuss was about after someone said it looked like Star Wars fan fiction (I don't think it is - but I could be wrong) and that was appealing in the moment. 

I will look up how many copies of this we've sold at some point, but it's easily in the hundreds which seems remarkable to me for something that's a decent, but otherwise unremarkable romance. That said there's a lot to like about this book, starting with Hazelwood's honesty about what she's writing - she frequently references made for tv romances, and that's how this book reads, but with humour and self-awareness. 

The plot doesn't really stand up to much scrutiny, people do not, on the whole, behave like this, but that's okay because the characters are likable and Hazelwood clearly does know American STEM academia, which is the background for the book, and that helps ground it. 

Olive is a promising post-grad student who accidentally kisses her department's star professor (for reasons). For more reasons he agrees to fake date her, until to nobody's surprise they turn out to be genuinely into each other. It's cute, good on the details, big on consent, funny, and a reliably good alternative to an afternoon film. It looks like Hazelwood has another romance out next year, which I'm fairly sure I'll read too, because in the end who doesn't want some reliably feel-good books in their collection. There are plenty of days when nothing else will do. 

Friday, November 26, 2021

Advent, Chutney, Almonds

I didn't mean to take a week off blogging but after the excitement of seeing family last Friday, the fun of working Saturdays and Sundays, and then the sheer joy of coming home on a Sunday night to find that careless upstairs neighbours had comprehensively blocked our shared soil pipe so I couldn't use my kitchen sink or washing machine. After that, I ran away to my mothers with a load of washing and spent some quality time with her dog. It's all left me feeling a bit wrung out so since then I've mostly been working or sleeping, but at least the water seems to be draining okay again and I've been able to do some kitchen things today. 

I saw fresh cranberries for sale yesterday so nabbed a pack of them to make Diana Henry's Christmas chutney with. I only had cooking apples and it's been both too wet and cold to want to venture out today so I went a little bit off recipe, but the results smell good and had a nice consistency so I'm happy. The time spent making cakes, puddings, chutney and mincemeat are amongst my favourite parts of Christmas. I could buy all of these things, but there's a mindful aspect in doing it from scratch that balances the craziness, commercialism, and inevitable disappointments of Christmas.

The chutney recipe is in 'Salt Sugar Smoke' which remains my favourite and most used Diana Henry book. It's also my favourite preserving book. If you want to start preserving things it's the perfect place to start - full of things you want to try, have easy to follow recipes, and aren't available in every supermarket you pass. 

Anja Dunk's 'Advent' looks set to become a similar favourite. This is partly because of the way it invites you to make all of December a celebration of advent rather than focusing in just one day towards the end of it, partly because I love biscuits, and again because it's the encouragement to make and share. So far I've concentrated on the Christmas Schnapps - which unusually for my has turned out well. 

Flavoured vodka is normally a disaster in my hands, but this orange, coffee, vanilla, and cinnamon infused beauty has broken my long run of bad luck to produce something I really want to drink. It's great as a reviving shot after a cold walk, and I'm looking forward to playing about with it in a couple of cocktails. 

I've also finally cracked the Cinnamon roast almonds (Gebrannte Mandeln) recipe. These worked out really well the first time I made them, and then I properly messed up my second attempt, built on that failure the 3rd time, and a lot of almonds later worked it out this morning. It helped that nothing (like the sink) broke down on me whilst I was making them, which gave me time to really consider how sugar behaves. 

As disasters go it could have been worse - I ended up with almond brittle which doesn't really qualify as a disaster although it's an object lesson in what heat does to see and taste the difference between the 2 sets of nuts.

To make the almonds you need a large heavy-bottomed frying pan, 150g of granulated sugar, 2 teaspoons of ground cinnamon, a teaspoon of vanilla extract, quarter of a teaspoon of fine salt, 75ml of water, and 200g of whole almonds. Put some greaseproof baking parchment on a baking tray and leave to one side.

Put everything except the almonds into the pan, turn the heat up to a high medium and stir until the sugar melts and it all starts to bubble. Add the almonds stir in, turn the heat down to medium (you still want the sugar to bubble rapidly, but not to burn) and watch for 3 minutes. Stir again once, and continue to watch - sometime after about 6-8 minutes the sugar will start to crystallise. Turn the heat to a low medium, give another stir and let them cook for another couple of minutes, you want most of the liquid to have evaporated. Now remove from the heat and stir continuously to help the rest of the sugar crystallise. If you carry on doing this over heat it gets more liquid as the sugar stops wanting to crystallise. I probably over stirred my almonds as the sugar mix was turning into something like fudge, but it makes it appealingly un-sticky to handle and tastes delicious - so again, I'm happy. 

Friday, November 19, 2021

Cornish Horrors - edited by Joan Passey

The Britsh Library Publishing catalogue turned up yesterday full of a whole lot of promise - there's some great looking stuff coming in the weird, crime classics and women's fiction series which mean that getting married isn't the only thing I'm excited about in the run-up to June next year (although it's the main thing, obviously).

It also reminded me that I had finished one of the three weird collections I'd been reading... 'Cornish Horrors' has been a particularly enjoyable anthology - everything in it has been new to me which is a bonus (I've read enough weird now from various sources to have seen a fair few things crop up with regularity) and really good. Cornwall as a place doesn't have any particular resonance for me beyond being the setting for Poldark so I did wonder if this collection would hold my interest. I needn't have worried.

It's not just that there's a selection of writers I know I'll enjoy, including F. Tennyson Jesse, Bran Stoker (in stories that have quite a bit in common but very different outcomes), F. Marion Crawford, Arthur Quiller-Couch, and Arthur Conon-Doyle, but they're great stories too. Bram Stoker can be patchy - but here he's just the right side of over the top and on the back of this I'll look for more of his short stories (and forget about dealing with the likes of the Lair of the White Worm again). 

F Marion Crawford's 'The Screaming Skull' might be one of the best bits of weird I've read in a while - which is saying something because there's been no shortage of competition. It's properly unsettling, pleasingly unlikely (thank god) mostly humorous, but comes with an ending that piles on the chills. 

There are other gems in here too, and a good deal of variety given the overarching Cornish theme and popular motifs that reappear through different writers work. It's half past four on a November afternoon as I write this, almost dark at the end of a gloomy day and quite the best time to be reading ghost stories and tales of the weird (with the possible exception of the long summer dusk of the north which is the other time and place I can believe almost anything). 

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails edited by David Wondrich and Noah Rothbaum

The first book I met and then bought when I got a job in a wine shop in 1999 was 'The Oxford Companion to Wine', I'm on my 3rd edition now. Even Waitrose supplied a copy for staff use because any questions you had about any part of the winemaking process, grapes, and I can't even think what else now, was likely to be answered by that book, or at least point you in the right direction. Concise, well written, easy to use, and authoritative, I still find it indispensable and I cannot begin to tell you how much I wish the Companion to Spirits and Cocktails had been around at the same time.

On the other hand, there's never been a better time for it than now when interest in making cocktails at home is still growing, and when the range of available spirits and liqueurs has probably never been more baffling. Not that this book contains an exhaustive list of products - they come and go too fast for that to be practical or desirable. Nor is it a recipe book, although it does contain cocktail recipes, but it is the best place to start a bit of research on any given spirit or cocktail research from.

As an example, I've been looking into Milk Punch after Richard Godwin had a recipe for it on his The Spirits newsletter and it occurred to me it might be useful for something else I'm doing. With head hung and a slight blush, I'm going to admit I forgot this book as I slogged around the internet looking for verifiable facts - and then I spotted it on my desk as I closed the laptop and kicked myself a bit. A quick check underlined exactly how much time I'd wasted - everything useful was in the Milk Punch entry, and as for the bits I wanted to verify - they're mentioned here, and I consider it a good enough source to quote (Wikipedia, unfortunately, is not).*

I accept that some of my interests are a bit niche and that not everyone will be as interested as I am to read about the history of Seagrams or Diageo - although a lot of people in the trade will be. There's a lot of fairly technical information in here which will be of more use to the professional than the casual reader as well - but it's also a big part of the appeal of the book for me. It's the kind of information I don't know I want until I need it. 

I do know that the drinks history entries are really useful to me, and anybody else who occasionally writes about these things or just finds them interesting, and kind of to our surprise D and I spent a happy afternoon getting lost in this as we looked up odd bits and followed references - the great thing about so many of the Oxford companion's is how enjoyable they can be to read when you dip in and out of them. I knew I'd find it interesting, but I hadn't banked on him falling down the rabbit hole with me.

If I sound a little bit breathless and overexcited about this book - well, I am. There hasn't really been anything like it before which covers so much in one place. Finding cocktail recipe books is easy enough (finding really good ones is a little harder, but there's no shortage of them). There's plenty of books about individual spirits - although again finding really good ones is sometimes a challenge. But a guide that covers production methods, recipes, tells you what the major families of spirits, liqueurs, aperitifs, digestives, and more are, can give you a reliable potted history of all of these that covers the most influential bartenders and mixologists from the beginning of the art to now, name-checks the classic books, and more, and more, and more? It's quite a big deal.

I hesitate to use the C word in November, but if you're looking for a Christmas present for a drinks enthusiast I don't see how you can miss with this book. 

*Milk punch, hot or cold, turns out to be excellent - there will be more about this in the future.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Shetland Wool Adventures Journal Volume 3

After a long week at work and with no let up in sight this side of Christmas it was a real treat to come home yesterday to find that I had a new edition of Slightly Foxed, the latest Shetland Wool Adventures Journal, and the baker's ammonia I'd ordered - I'm just waiting on a springerle mold now. 

I hadn't expected the Wool Adventures Journal quite yet so it was a particularly nice surprise - I've written book reviews for it and an article about rhubarb and the thrill of seeing my writing along with someone's beautifully professional photography is a thrill that isn't getting old. Neither is the general sense of pride at being included in something I like as much as this.

It's a brilliant journal that's getting consistently better with each issue, and really showcases some of the best of what's happening in Shetland. The patterns are great, but so are the articles about the history of the islands, the recipes included, the walks which are detailed, the focus on local artists - and of course being able to look at the books which are coming out of Shetland or are inspired by the islands. 

I love being able to do my bit to celebrate that last because not only are there some great things to read, but I feel really strongly that we all need to celebrate the local in literature more. I think most of us want to read books that have places and people we recognise in them at least as much as we want to escape into other worlds through books, but it's not always easy and the nature of mainstream publishing means you get a lot of the same sort of thing. To get more of the books we want we need to support them as much as we can when they come along. 

But honestly, there's a lot in here for anyone who shares an interest in food, nature, shetland, knitting, walking, history - all of it. It's a really good journal. Buy it here:

Shetland Wool Adventure Journal volume 3 - Shetland Wool Adventures

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Renard Press Christmas Card Books are Back

Last year Renard Press produced a Christmas card book hybrid that I thought was next to being a work of genius. It was 'The Burglar's Christmas' by Willa Cather with room to write a message in the front, postable without the need for a more expensive stamp, and perfect for sending to the readers in my life who I wanted to give something more than a card too, but not go down the whole present route with - it gets out of hand really quickly if you're not careful.

Anyway they're back, and this year there's a choice of Willa Cather and Washington Irving's 'The Christmas Dinner', order a pack and a book and you'll have spent enough to qualify for free delivery (which makes me feel like I'm getting a discount on the book). There's some great stuff to choose from and I'm really looking forward to getting mine. 

Having neglected to save myself a card last year I was really pleased when I actually got sent one (thanks Annabel). They're even more of a pleasure to get than to send, though I might hold one back just in case I don't get one this time. 

Have a look at Renard's books HERE!

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Advent - Anja Dunk

Yesterday was one of those days when almost everything goes badly, but I did manage to book a booster vaccine shot for 9.20am this morning - maybe not the best way to start a day off, but at least 24 clear hours for possible side effects before I go back to work. So far it's fine apart from probably unrelated indigestion (coffee and a chunk of chocolate orange are almost certainly responsible for that) and feeling a bit woozy immediately afterwards. 

Since then I've made my Christmas puddings and had a good look through Anja Dunk's 'Advent' accompanied by an online order for some of the harder to get ingredients (bakers ammonia and pottasche, along with ground mace and anise - which I could probably find locally, but after drawing a couple of blanks this morning I'm going to let a*azon bring it to me). 

I was excited about this book from the moment I heard about it. I love 'Strudel, Noodles and Dumplings', I'm always up for a good baking book, and I'm keen to adopt some of the German traditions that my grandmother would have known but didn't pass down to us, and a more Scandinavian approach to Christmas and advent generally.

December is a tough time for a lot of us, and one of the things I struggle with, especially after years in retail is how much emphasis goes into one day. It makes a lot more sense to me to spread the cheer across the whole of advent. There's more room for treats and less chance of overeating on one day and not being able to enjoy what's in front of you by the time you've worked around to pudding and cheese.

'Advent' is every bit the book I'd hoped it would be - it's split into days, each with a particular theme. My birthday is dedicated to macaroons, and making some is how I might decide to spend the day. I'm also inclined to get some Christmas schnapps on the go and am absolutely planning on making Springerle, as well as some of the marzipan cookies, and a couple of the breads. I've already warned my workmates that I'll be adopting them as family for biscuit eating purposes and I'm looking forward to leisurely baking on cold, grey, days off.

I really like that the emphasis is on food here too, and particularly the sort of food - it's kind of a biscuit bible without being limited to biscuits. Even if you're a household of only one or two this is great for giving and sharing with your wider circle. Advent doesn't pay much head to Christmas day either - and I already have a lot of Christmas cookbooks so it's something of a relief to avoid more crossover. 

It's a beautiful book to look at as well - Anja's woodcuts preface each day of the calendar and the green and gold cloth cover is really nice too. It feels like something special to be bought out each winter, something that will be a source of inspiration when it comes to trying things and establishing new traditions. It's just what winter needs. 

Monday, November 8, 2021

The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings - Dan Jones

This is an odd little book that has stocking filler written all over it  - though as it's small it won't automatically be the easiest thing to find in a bookshop. If you do find it, it's got a real charm and might be just the thing for the medievalist, or budding medievalist in your life. 

Dan Jones took a fairly obscure* late 14th/early 15th-century ghost story and polished it up for retelling to his children. The history of this story is every bit as good as the story itself. It was first written down around 600 years ago by a monk at Byland Abbey, one of a dozen ghost stories he recorded in the spare pages of an older manuscript. The stories are full of local landmarks and colour, and read as if they were contemporary to their scribe - so presumably stories that were circulated and believed in the area at the time. Redacted names strengthen the possible view that real people were being protected.

The manuscript ended up in the royal collection, and then in the British Library where the great writer of ghost stories (and medieval scholar) M. R. James read about them in a catalogue and got in quick to transcribe the Latin. The stories are all short - this is by far the longest, and it sounds like they're all fairly weird by modern standards - but James was right when he thought he was onto something, and Jones picked well when he decided to retell and embellish 'The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings'.

I only realised how much of Dan Jones was in this when I went back and read some of the accompanying material - he's bulked it out a fair bit, but this is how retelling works, and he does include a reference to a recent translation for anybody who wants to look up the original Byland Abbey stories. For anybody with Latin, M.R. James' original transcript along with notes is also included here.

The action takes place in November, the story is a good mix of the comic, weird and outright frightening. It's suitable to tell aloud to a reasonably young audience - children over 9 will probably be able to read things as gruesome elsewhere, and the great thing about telling ghost stories is that you can edit as you feel appropriate. As well as the fun of the story there's plenty to unpick about medieval life too, and that's probably the biggest selling point here.

Want examples of the church charging for services, even haggling over them? Corrupt priests, odd beliefs in revenants, superstitions, a hint at what the inside of a church might have looked like? It's all here. It's also a gateway to M. R. James and Dan Jones's other work too - so there's a lot going on.

*Obscure is a relative term - I hadn't heard of this before but plenty will have. 

Friday, November 5, 2021

A Shetland Pattern Book - Mary Smith and Maggie Twatt

The nicest thing by far that's happened this week was when someone called Elizabeth emailed me to say she was having a clear-out and had found a copy of 'A Shetland Pattern Book' she didn't want and would I like it. Would I! I've wanted a copy of this for an age now and I'm so grateful to Elizabeth for sending it, it even turned up on Fair Isle Friday to make it extra special. 

If I could choose one book for the Shetland Times - or indeed anybody else who can manage it, to bring back into print this would be it. There are other pattern books that offer more patterns, colour combinations, knitting know-how, all sorts of things but this one does a couple of things particularly well. 

Mary Smith comes from a Shetland family, was bought up in Ayrshire and returned to Shetland with her husband where they ran a knitwear business (I'm judging a bit from the dates of initial publication, but probably in the 1960s, 70s and beyond). Maggie came from Caithness graduated from Edinburgh College of Art with a tapestry degree and married a Shetland man who was an art teacher. It's a good background for putting together a pattern book.

One of the things they mention in the introduction is the ubiquity of a personal pattern book in every house where women knitted - they were squared school graph books, and I had one at primary school for knitting classes (lost and regretted now). When I started knitting again I searched for something similar with a total lack of success - I have a swanky Moleskine version (although now the elastic has given up it's rather less swanky) with a slightly too large 5mm square, and could find 1mm graph paper, but the ideal is something between 2 and 3mm. Small enough to get plenty of design on a page, big enough to see easily.

The pages here are 2mm, my partner printed me 3mm sheets. The whole book is much the size and shape of the old exercise books and I'm wondering now how many of these survive. There's the obviously brilliant example of 'A Shetlander's Fair Isle Graph Book' that goes back to the 1930s that the guild of Spinner, Knitters, Weavers and Dyers published, and I've seen a decent collection of patterns loose in binders in the Whalsey Heritage Centre, but it would be great to see more. They would form an excellent and invaluable record of changing fashions in Fair Isle knitting, personal preferences, and a way to see how knitters communicated with each other or borrowed designs and motifs.

The other thing this book does really well is give the patterns space, so although the selection is relatively limited it's much easier to pick out what you want from it than some other books. This might seem like a small thing, but it makes a really big difference. 

I'm absolutely delighted to finally have my own copy and so grateful to Elizabeth for her kindness in sending this to me - it's really going to be appreciated.

Thursday, November 4, 2021

The Art of Doris and Anna Zinkeisen - Kellaway, Woodhouse, & Evans

The fireworks have been going off for a good hour now - I wish I could see them instead of just being able to hear them - but happy Diwali to all who celebrate it.

Meanwhile, I've put down my knitting (I must get that jumper finished) and tried to shuffle around my books again which has pushed 'The Art of Doris and Anna Zinkeisen' to the top of the pile. I discovered the Zinkeisen sisters at the Modern Scottish Women Painters and Sculptors exhibition in Edinburgh back in 2016. It was an outstanding exhibition, with one of the most arresting images in it being a portrait by Doris Zinkeisen. Since then I've actively looked out for mentions of the sister's work - which have appeared in a steady trickle, so far culminating in this book which has been written to celebrate the recent purchase by Colchester and Ipswich museum services of a Doris Zinkeisen triple portrait.

The rediscovery of the Zinkeisen sisters is part of a growing and overdue trend to reclaim women artists from obscurity and they're interesting for a number of reasons. The first is that their portraits are remarkable - both powerful and fabulously glamorous in the fashion of the day - especially those from the 1930s to the 1950s. Secondly, they were successful designers of posters, including some fairly famous posters for the London Underground and the train network, stage sets, and costumes. There's their work as war artists, including some horrific images of Belson. They also painted murals and there's even a toy theatre which I won't give too many details about as it's still available online for not huge prices and I'm dithering over buying one before they become prohibitively expensive. 

This combination of art and design is heady stuff, it really does feel like they capture the mood of the 1930s - 50s through a combination of direct observation and design-led interpretation, influencing and recording at the same time. Understanding the full range of what the sisters produced gives added depth to some of the more commercial work, and an added punch to some of the war pieces when you see the contrast between them. 

This book should be a must for anybody who has an interest in women's writing from the middle of the 20th century - it's a painted version of all those middle-brow novels that we love. It's also an excellent start on reassessing the work of two undeservedly overlooked artists - and basically, it's a real treat for the eyes. Put it on your Christmas list, buy it just because  - you will not be disappointed (at least I can't see how you could be)!

Published by Unicorn Publishing Group: Home Page

Monday, November 1, 2021

Shetland Wool Week Annual Volume 7

I have a huge pile of really excellent books to finish reading and talking about - I'm absolutely going to have to get my act together in November to clear some of them off my desk and share them with you. It's not going to happen tonight though as I really need to finish the second sleeve of my jumper (how has it taken me so much longer to knit each sleeve than it did the body of the thing?) and this year's wool week annual has landed in my letterbox.

I love the Shetland Wool Week Annual, and this year I'm really proud to be able to say I've got a piece in it. I had the absolute pleasure of getting to contact a range of different groups of people who had got through lockdown with knitting and other activities - I've met literally the nicest people through this - including a wonderful transatlantic reading group who welcomed me into their fold have been amazing to talk to and get to know and they're only the beginning of it. 

The online knitting community has been a godsend over the last two years, with a niche for anybody who wants to find one. It's been one of the positives of lockdown and something I'm very glad to have found. 

There are some cracking patterns in this years annual too - worth the cover price for those alone, and right now a couple of articles that I'm going to read before I do anything else tonight. The photography is also particularly lovely in this issue - and honestly, if you knit, buy it! You will find it here amongst other places Shetland Wool Week Annual 2021 – Shetland Wool Week Shop

Friday, October 29, 2021

The Villa and The Vortex - Elinor Mordaunt

I have a lot of weird collections on the go at the moment - I'm dipping in and out of 3 of the British Library series titles in a way that is deeply unhelpful as I can't remember who wrote what at the moment - but they're all so irresistible. Thanks then are due to Judith (again) at Handheld who is really good at chasing up review copies she's sent out, which in turn keeps me on top of my schedule as far as her books are concerned. 

I'd read two of Elinor Mordaunt's short stories before, one that is repeated in this collection (edited by Mellisa Edmundson who also edited the very good Women's Weird collections from Handheld - I think there's a 3 for 2 offer on them until Sunday...) and one that is not. Hodge is the story that is repeated, it's filled with a particular sexual menace that sadly still resonates and I hadn't forgotten it. 

It's sometimes hard going to read a whole collection by a single author, but whilst Mordaunt has a series of themes and issues she comes back to, there's enough variety, and she's so very good at what she does that it works really well here. The first stories in the collection are almost novella length. The Weakening Point is interesting with an ending that's sort of signposted but is non the less unsettling for that. The second - The Country-Side is the longest and also my favourite in this collection. 

It mostly deals with a  marriage that has gone wrong - the husband is not all the wife had hoped (a recurring theme in Mordaunt's stories) and the women in the village who everyone thinks is a witch knows altogether too much about it. There's something about the characterisation of everyone involved in this one that works particularly well, and the ending wasn't quite what I expected, and what I got in some of the other stories - it was more ambiguous and the better for it. 

The other stand-out story for me is Four Wallpapers which makes excellent use of domestic space to unsettle the reader. It's an excellent companion to The Villa, both of them strip the home of its character as a haven for its inhabitants. Altogether it's a really strong collection by an author who doesn't deserve to have been forgotten. 

These stories are definitely weird rather than horror, although sometimes they cross over - so The Villa is frightening in its way, and so is The Fountain, but The Landlady is charming with a bittersweet ending, and Four Wallpapers has a similar mood. Both have interesting takes on what a ghost might be. Altogether it's the perfect sort of book for this time of year - thoughtful rather terrifying, with enough atmosphere to give the occasional chill and lots to chew over. Highly recommended. 

Also - do have a look at Handheld's website here - order books from them and they come delightfully wrapped Homepage - Handheld Press 


Tuesday, October 26, 2021

A Pin to See the Peepshow - F. Tennyson Jesse

As I write this the Women Writers series edition is delayed, I managed to find a copy of the Virago edition, (first reprinted in 1979) which seemed preferable to reading it via PDF. It meant I read this rather faster than I think did it justice - in an ideal world it might have worked better for me if I could have spread it out over a week and thought about it a bit more.

'A Pin to see the Peepshow' has been one of those old Virago books that you keep an eye out for. If you don't have it yourself the chances are that you know somebody who wants it and online copies had got expensive, so it's excellent news that The British Library has managed to negotiate the rights for it and give it another chance at a wider audience.

It's a curious book - widely accepted to be a fictionalised account of the Thompson - Bywaters case, a murder trial notorious in its day, and still vaguely familiar to anyone who reads around the period. I decided not to look up the details whilst reading, but I'm interested to see what the introduction/afterword of the new edition has to say about it. There might well be spoilers to follow but as F. Tennyson Jesse wrote this book only a decade after Thompson and Bywaters were hung we can assume that the majority of her readers would have been aware of it and have recognised how closely what she wrote corresponded to life. It's maybe a harder book to stick with if you don't know what's coming.

We meet Julia Almond when she's 16 and on her way to school where she's a personality. She's not strictly speaking beautiful, but she's attractive and a considerable personality within the school. Julia comes from a lower middle-class background where the appearance of respectability is everything and the rules of conduct are strict. Her father is not especially prosperous and when he dies he leaves his family with few resources.

Julia by this point is working in a dress shop, good at her job, ambitious, and sure as she's always been that she's somebody special destined for something wonderful. Unfortunately, her economic reality is that she can continue to live in cramped and uncongenial surroundings with her family, or she can marry an older man who offers financial stability. Julia makes the choice that most of us might in her circumstances. She marries the man she doesn't much care about and hopes for the best - it is after all wartime and anything might happen. Nothing does happen except that the marriage is a failure that makes her deeply unhappy. When love, or what she assumes to be love does come along it's a shortcut to tragedy.

Tennyson Jesse spends a long time building us a picture of Julia - far from perfect, vain, uneducated despite her intelligence, and very much a dreamer - but also vital, generous, hard-working, and an excellent business woman - she could be any woman who has dreamed of and worked for something better than she has, and has dreamed of being happy and loved. The continual message from the author is that Julias's downfall isn't because of what she wants, but because of her social position.

A richer woman from a higher social class could obtain a divorce with no real difficulty and no significant social disgrace, had she come from a rung or two further down on the social ladder nobody would have much cared what she did either. As it stands Julia's husband won't consider divorce, her family would consider it an absolute disgrace, and so would her lover's so there wouldn't be much of a happy ending. Just as crucially Julia would consider it a loss of respectability too, and that's important to her. 

It's hard to imagine how rigid that social code must have been now - although heaven knows there's enough detective fiction based around the need to murder an unwanted spouse to give some idea of how unrealistic an option divorce was. Even so, I'm more convinced by the misogyny that makes the world so hostile to Julia, older than her lover by some 7 years. He must have been led astray, she must be a wicked woman - it's still too easy to imagine this narrative.

There's no doubt at all by the end of the book about where Tennyson Jesse stands on Julia's fate, or how she feels about capital punishment. There's a lot to unpack in this book, which is why I feel I've rushed through reading it a bit. Ideas about justice and morality have changed somewhat - there are repeated suggestions that Julia would have thrived as a kept woman which are distasteful to me now for entirely different reasons (I think) to those a reader might have had in 1934. There's a section on back street abortions which has become unexpectedly relevant again given what's happening in America, and there's a lot to think about on the general subjects of romance, love, and marriage. 

The most remarkable thing about this book though is the sustained insight it offers into a woman's life and way of thinking, and how convincing the portrait of Julia is. We have to be able to relate to Julia and sympathise with her, to do that Tennyson Jesse bares her soul to us (both Julia's, maybe a bit of her own, and perhaps some of the readers too). The result is deeply compelling and a heartfelt cry about how hard it is to be a woman. It really is an excellent thing to have this book back in print. 

Sunday, October 24, 2021

O Caledonia - Elspeth Barker

Ali Smith's quote on the cover of this book is that it's 'The best least-known novel of the twentieth century" and Maggie O'Farrell says in her introduction that she's built friendships on a shared love of this book. I'd never heard of it before seeing it come into the bookshop, but it's definitely one of the best novels I've read without hearing anything about beforehand, and I'd be willing to bet that anybody else who liked it was worth getting to know too. 

Elspeth Barker is better known as a journalist and critic, 'O Caledonia' is her only novel, published in 1991 when she was 51. It will appeal to people who like Shirley Jackson, Molly Keane, and maybe to lovers of 'I Capture The Castle' but there's a darkness about it which does not belong in Dodie Smith. It's also the perfect slightly gothic but not a ghost story for Autumn.

We start with the corpse and then the burial of Janet. Sixteen found sprawled "in bloody murderous death" wearing her mother's black lace evening dress, halfway down the grand staircase of the family castle. From there we go back to the beginning of Janet's life and follow her to the end of it. 

The eldest of five eventual siblings Janet is unfortunate to have neither beauty nor any particular grace. She's a clever but unlovely and unloved child. The sort who can never do right for doing wrong - who doesn't tell anyone when her sister falls out of a moving car because she's frightened of the row she'll get. Her brother and sisters have the charm and looks that Janet lacks and if their parents don't particularly love or understand them any better, they at least work as a family.

For Janet life is a series of misunderstandings and casual cruelties. She loves the castle her father inherits, cold, inconvenient, and in places dangerously near-derelict as it is. The school he makes of it, and initially makes her attend, is filled with boys eager to bully a girl and eventually to sexually intimidate her. Janet can more or less take care of herself though as an incident with a patch of giant hogweed and a boy who has exposed himself to her prove.

I fell in love with 'O Caledonia' on page 3 when Barker describes a plate of rock buns "assembled on snowy doilies, malignly aglitter with the menace of carbonised currents." Janet is a concentrated version of every one of us who has ever cared too much, felt misunderstood, confused, awkward, ugly, and above all alone - which must surely be every adolescent that has ever been.

There's a dark humor that runs through the book, splendidly gothic or baroque moments - such as Janet's mother painting the hooves of a pony gold in the dining room. The pony is a birthday present for Janet's sister, and Janet jealous on behalf of her own pony frustrates her mother by explaining how the paint will surely poison the animal. This is the other part of Barker's genius; as much as we relate to and sympathise with Janet, we also see how hard to live with she is. 

I'm not really going this book justice, but it's genuinely one of the best things I've read in ages. Barker isn't quite like anyone else I've read, though Molly Keane would be the closest (I think Barker is kinder) and anybody who like 'We Have Always Lived in the Castle' would surely like this too, though for all the gothic details Barker is less weird than Shirly Jackson. Definitely pick it up if you see it and try a few pages. 

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.