Thursday, May 12, 2022

Death of Bookseller - Bernard J. Farmer

I'm currently obsessed with getting a jumper finished and busy with wedding planning and work. Reading and blogging have very much taken a back seat and I'm guessing that won't change much until after the wedding in June (maybe a bit earlier if I get the jumper done in good time). 

I did recently read and enjoy 'Death of a Bookseller' though - the 100th title in the British Library's Crime Classic series - and an excellent choice it was too. This series has evolved over the years from showcasing some interesting curiosities to being an increasingly comprehensive survey of classic crime. It has some real gems in it by any standard you choose to use as a measure, some beguiling oddities, and a lot of entertaining books in between. (My mother phoned me from her bathroom last night, she'd spent an hour reading Lorac's Bats in the Belfry, the water had gone cold whilst she sat in the bath and she hadn't even noticed she was so engrossed).

As a bookseller, the title for this latest book amused me, and so did the actual story. Set in 1950's London (written in 1956) a local policeman helps a drunk home. The drunk turns out to be a celebrating book buyer. Michael Fisk has found Keats' own copy of Endymion, he's holding a fortune in his hands, a career coup that obviously deserved getting drunk on. Sergeant Wigan strikes up a friendship with his drunken charge who initiates him into the mysteries of rare book-buying so when Fisk is murdered and the Endymion goes missing Sergeant Wigan is lent to CID to help track down the killer.

Book buyers turn out to be a violent lot, ever happy to pull a knife or commit a robbery - a depressingly accurate description of retail then and now*, there also seems to be a lot of attempts to raise the devil, with some delightful rumours of a demonic goat or bull known to have been loose in Soho. Altogether no world for a god-fearing policeman to find himself in, so initially Wigan is relieved when the murderer seems to have been caught, but then he begins to doubt they have the right man and because he's a truly decent man he continues to search for more clues despite the disapproval of his superiors.

There's a lot to enjoy about this book. The occult element is a delightfully gothic distraction, there are plenty of amusing character sketches and some interesting observations on post-war London and what a great time it was for abject chancers to make a fortune. Wigan provides a solid counterpoint to all the frivolous madness going on around him and altogether it's a satisfying mystery with a decent conclusion. Highly recomended.

*Obviously most people are both lovely and honest, but not all of them are, and dealing with shoplifters on a daily basis is an eye-opener. 

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Finding a Jubilee Mug

There has never been a platinum Jubilee in this country (or anywhere?), and I'm fairly sure there might never be again - regardless, I certainly won't see one, so I wanted at least one bit of memorabilia to mark the occasion, and that someone will probably pick up in a charity shop when I'm long gone and be delighted with!

It's a tricky business to find just the right object though, For once I'm not after a book. It had to be something I liked and that appealed to my magpie instincts, but not so expensive that I would never use it. So far I haven't seen a lot of stuff coming through - we have a healthy crop of books about the queen at work, Emma Bridgewater has some plain and ultimately uninspiring mugs, ditto M&S with biscuit tins - I don't much like their shortbread either so they're really not tempting me.

I have found an Angela Harding mug produced for the National Portrait Gallery though. I like her work a lot (Christmas wouldn't be the same without one of her advent calenders), the mug was £35 which is a lot for a mug (enough that I guess I won't see them everywhere) but still just in that usable bracket. I ordered it.

It arrived today and looks even better than in its picture - it's a good size (will hold a proper cup of tea) a nice weight (I like bone china, this isn't too heavy, but not flimsy either) and the colours are very much to my taste so I feel like I've absolutely cracked this one. I might keep an eye out for a cheap tea towel, a syrup tin, and if I get lucky, a decent whisky, to further mark the occasion. 

Is anybody else on the lookout for something particular? 

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

The Weather Weaver - Tamsin Mori

After being so disappointed by Julia and the Shark I came across 'The Weather Weaver' on the Shetland Times Bookshop website (it'll always be one of my favourite bookshops anywhere), and then found we had it at work, so bought and read it. 

Aimed at the same age group (9-12) and both using Shetland as a setting for their action these books are wildly different. Kiran Millwood Hargrave is the more elegant writer but I enjoyed 'The Weather Weaver' far more. It helped that Tamsin Mori does know Shetland and that knowing it, she uses an unnamed and made-up island for her action - although it does have one well-known landmark on it which in this context is a fun detail.

The plot is about a young girl, Stella, who's spending the summer with her grandfather on a remote croft, whilst her parents are working. She hasn't seen him since her grandmother died, and instead of the cheerful man, she remembers she finds a bad-tempered, elderly man who has removed every trace of the grandmother they clearly both miss and who is unwilling to let Stella leave the house. 

After an argument, she runs away, meets an old woman called Tamar who encourages her to catch a cloud, and finds she's a weather weaver - a sort of witch. Tamar (a not unusual Shetland name in the older generation) starts teaching Stella what she can do with her magic, hampered by Stella's bursts of bad temper which make her cloud flash lightening with considerable risk to all until the appearance of the Haken, a fearsome sea witch, threatens them all.

The Haken steals clouds for their magic and traps them underwater until they go mad, so are obviously sworn enemies of weather weavers - and she makes a convincing foe, although not so fearsome that the eventual resolution seems unlikely. The real strength of this book is in the way Mori draws Stella and her relationships with her Grandfather and Tamar though. Stella is about 11, the age when often you can't do right for doing wrong - so she breaks things when she tries to help, accidentally annoys her grandfather by moving his tools, and is both capable of rising to a challenge, and being overwhelmed.

I was bought up on the unflappably capable Famous Five, and magical children who could save the world before breakfast, so to meet a character who gets frightened in the fog, and makes some fairly major mistakes is great. I love the way Stella interacts with Tamar as both a friend and mentor too - Tamar gets the best lines. But it's the relationship between Stella and her Grandfather as they get to know and trust each other that's the best thing here. 

Mori nails the frustrated anger that both parties begin by feeling towards each other because frankly, they're both out of their depth, and then the slow thaw as they start to understand each other and deep affection returns to their dealings with each other. The balance between the magic and mundane parts of Stella's life is perfect. These bits remind me so much of the next door neighbour we had as children who stood as an honorary grandparent to me and my sister (our actual grandparents were far away and not overly affectionate or interested in hanging out with young children) that I'm currently feeling desperately nostalgic and a little tearful (in a good way).

So - a decent adventure, great sense of place, a nice setup for the second book without making you feel like the story is half told, and something that hits true on the trials of being an adolescent - The Weather Weaver has it all. I can definitely recommend this one for younger readers. 

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Julia and the Shark - Kiran Millwood Hargrave and Tom de Freston

I'm really torn about this book. On the one hand, it's a beautifully illustrated, intelligent exploration of how a parent's depression can affect a child, and how confusing a world of adult emotions can be for a child to navigate. On the other hand, there's such a profound lack of understanding of the Shetland setting that for anyone who knows the islands, or even the north of Scotland, it's hard work to carry on reading.

A quick look at the uniformly positive reviews and list of awards the book has gathered suggest that very few people who do know the north of Scotland have read it, but I really wish that Kiran Millwood Hargrave had chosen a setting she understood, knew, or had spent a bit longer googling. It's partly because I do know Shetland, and Unst, and anything that gets it so fundamentally wrong would irk me, but more so in this case, because the reality of the island would have made a stronger story. 

The long daylight hours of summer, frequently mentioned, but again clearly not understood, would make the star gazing parts of the book difficult - it's really unlikely to be dark enough in the summer. The same long nights can have a very disorientating effect on people who aren't used to it though. The lists of wildlife you might expect to see, specifically, the whales, are off. The dismissal of the possibility of seeing an otter ("unlikely, but possible") when they're hard to avoid, the gorse surrounding the lighthouse, even the seagulls are wrong.

I guess it's fair enough to invent a contemporary need to automate lighthouses (the last ones were done in the 1990s), but not that they were single manned (they weren't, you typically had 3 keepers to take turns to watch, but also for mental health reasons). I don't know why you need to invent a town on Unst (there are a couple of scattered shops, Shetland shops don't set stock outside because it would likely blow away - and the constant wind is another thing that incomers to the islands really struggle with) because again it's isolation and the fact you need to get 2 ferries just to reach the mainland of Shetland is one of the things that makes life there a challenge. Another is that from the age of 12 children have to leave and board on Mainland Shetland to go to School. They come back to the outer isles for summer, not leave them. 

I think maybe the thing that jarred most was the discussion of racism though. It's fair to say any incomers would have a hard time, the prejudice in my childhood was based entirely on accent - if you didn't have the dialect you were marked out as other. I'm not sure how much a difference the colour of your skin might make, but not the difference it makes on mainland Britain. Island cultures are fragile and people are keen to protect their heritage and unique cultures - it's a complex situation so the completely anglicised local bullies grated on me. There's an attitude here that feels like its own form of racism in the casual assumptions and stereotypes it sets on people.

I've written this within minutes of finishing the book, by tomorrow the good bits might have floated to the top of my mind like so much cream - the illustrations really are brilliant, and if you want a poetically beautiful but relatable book to help talk to your children about depression with, you'd probably struggle to find a better one, I just wish it had been set somewhere else.

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

The Toll Gate - Georgette Heyer #1954BookClub

I last read this about a year ago with the (much missed) Georgette Heyer read-along group on Twitter. Until that point, it had been one of my favourites and always read at breakneck speed partly because the pace of the action in the book demands it, and generally because who does spend weeks reading and mulling over a romance they've read a dozen times? Not me unless I have a reason to.

After the read-along experience, it's still one of my favourite Heyer's, but I'm aware of things I hadn't really picked up on before - such as the curious absence of the heroine from the book. The more I read and think about her, the more it surprises me that we think of Heyer as a romance writer in the modern sense of the word. Maybe it's the costume element of her dramas but this is a remarkably bleak book that's altogether more of an action thriller. If it was published today it would have a super-smart jacket and be part of the current vogue for literary historical fiction (and I'd really like to see her marketed like that just once).

The book opens in the middle of a family party with a bored ex-military man looking to make a quick getaway and maybe find some excitement - a common theme in detective fiction from the same era, and also something that Gavin Maxwell discusses in Harpoon at a Venture when he looks at his own need for adventure after army life, and the other men he finds struggling with peacetime. Captain Jack finds his adventure in the form of a very frightened child in an otherwise abandoned toll house on a dark and stormy night.

The weather being foul he decides to stay and keep an eye on the child until morning, and then in quick succession, he meets a highwayman and the squire's grandaughter who he instantly takes a fancy to. The mystery over the missing toll gate minder grows and Jack decides to stay for a while. He falls in love with Nell, and she with him, although she's got a lot on her own plate in the form of a sick grandfather who she's trying to protect, an estate she cannot inherit that she's trying to keep solvent, a dodgy house guest who's bent on serious sexual assault (at the very least) and a very uncertain future.

Nell's predicament as a capable and intelligent woman stuck at home with few options on the career front also chimes with the state of play in the 1950s. The reader might think that Jack sounds like a thrill-seeking liability, but at least he offers some sort of stability and choice for Nell.

Meanwhile, a plot involving stolen gold unfolds, with a dramatic peak district setting and plenty more boys' own adventure. All of which I love. For me, the combination of action and the stark depiction of Nell's situation are an excellent balance. There's some low comedy thrown in for light relief - which Heyer excels at, and this book is both typical and untypical, of what she does. Definitely at the darker end of her spectrum, but with plenty of her trademark humour. I'd also love to see this televised - I think you could have a ball with it.

Last year's review is here

Monday, April 18, 2022

Nistisima - Georgina Hayden

It's a while since I've been really excited by a cookbook (Christmas - Anja Dunk's Advent - really brilliant) and I feel a bit of a hypocrite for writing about this one whilst eating leftover trifle straight from the bowl, but Nistisma is fabulous. Its food associated with fast days in the orthodox religion - no meat, fish, dairy means it's vegan too (although honey is traditionally used in some of these dishes, Hayden also gives substitutes for it) hence the trifle guilt. 

I grabbed a copy of this as soon as I saw it at work. I'm not always a fan of vegan cookbooks, but I need vegan choices for my wedding and this looked like an excellent place to start getting inspiration from. It lived up to its promise and more besides. It's amazing what a shift in perspective can do - and here it's the sense of tradition that attracts me. It's also that it's a lot of really delicious sounding food that happens to be vegan.

The reach of the orthodox church is also helping here - so there's plenty of Mediterranean food, but also food from Russia, Ukraine, and indeed much of eastern Europe, Egypt, Turkey, and more. That's a lot of things to be excited about. I'm also really pleased to find a drinks section - I'm always after good alcohol-free options that have some complexity to them. There's a lovely sounding citrus cordial in here, some very tempting kvass recipes (will this be the ferment that gets me going on the whole process?), and some spiced honey drinks I'm very taken with too. 

Again though, it's a book full of delicious sounding things that are making me excited for summer and some of the vegetables to be in season. There are a lot of salads I want to try, and a few things I think will work for wedding food, so altogether I'm delighted with this book. Finally reading it over the Easter weekend was timely (and even better than chocolate). 

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Love on the Brain - Ali Hazelwood

This doesn't come out until August and normally I wouldn't even mention it at this point, but I was first to grab a reading copy at work, there's no chance I'll see it again now I've thrown it back into the pile and it's been snapped up by someone else, and I'll have forgotten most of what I want to say by the time it comes out.

I have a soft spot for The Love Hypothesis, it's one of the few Book Tok titles I've clicked with, and I read it fairly early on in my current bookselling career so I've had the fun of watching it really take off whilst being able to share some of the enthusiasm of the hundreds of girls who have bought their copy from us. 

I like a good romance, but struggle to find the right kind of romance for me. Normally I fall back on Georgette Heyer, sometimes a Mills & Boon. I was going to claim that I'm not snobbish about M&B but that wouldn't be entirely honest, the quality is extremely variable, sometimes they're unintentionally funny, but mostly they're fairly throw away - the reading equivalent of an afternoon made for tv film. And sometimes that's close enough to what I want to do.

I really don't like romances where the heroines have cute little jobs in shops or as wedding planners or running cafes. I've done plenty of those things, the reality is not romantic and the books like this I've cast an eye over have all lacked the humour to get me past that - also, each to their own. Escapism doesn't work so well when the setting is a highly rose-tinted version of your own reality.

What Ali Hazelwood has is a sense of humour I enjoy, she also has the balance of smut right in these books - enough to satisfy younger readers who have grown up with a lot of very explicit fan fiction, not so much that this middle-aged woman blushes or otherwise feels uncomfortable about the tone of the content. She also does a really great job of bringing STEM academia to life. My favourite bit of 'Love on the Brain' is the discussion and plot points that revolve around funding for research - which I don't think counts as a spoiler.

I like the science background too, it's Hazelwood's day job, and it shows when she writes about what it's like as a woman making her way in a male-dominated field. It's also the source of her best jokes. Something else that intrigues me is these books' beginnings as Star Wars (specifically Reylo) fan fiction. There are jokes about this in the books too. Writing fan fiction increasingly looks like a pretty good way of finding and learning your audience. Hazelwood is a decent writer and I think she's very clear about who she's writing for - there's a confidence about what she does that's also very appealing to me.

All I'll really say about 'Love on the Brain' is that if you liked 'The Love Hypothesis' you'll enjoy this one every bit as much, maybe even more. I don't doubt it'll be every bit as successful, and it deserves to be. It's silly, and fun, but with genuine heart - which is exactly what I want from a romance.

Monday, April 11, 2022

Murder in the Basement - Anthony Berkeley

It's been a while since I posted a book review, mostly because I've just not been reading much recently. When I do get away from watching the news I've found I have more concentration for knitting, very little for books. On a more particular note, it didn't help that I lost this book for a month after finishing it (obviously it was where I must have left it, buried in a pile of other books).

Anyway, classic crime and romance are about all I have the patience for when I am reading, and Murder in the Basement was fun. It opens with a young couple moving into their new home - where they swiftly make a gruesome discovery in the basement. If there's a moral to this story it might be that it's better not to go around poking at potential DIY issues if you don't want to end up with a bigger problem than you bargained for. 

The traumatised young couple are swiftly out of the picture, replaced by the police and amateur sleuth,  Roger Sheringham - also an author for those who have not yet met him. The first problem is to identify the victim, and it's not an easy one to solve. From there a motive has to be sifted out as well as a possible perpetrator. 

For reasons, it seems that the victim might have been employed in a school where Roger briefly worked, and where he'd taken notes on the staff intending to use them for characters in a novel. These notes become a key part of the investigation, as well as being a lovely way to show all the ways in which Roger's conclusions are off the mark. There are a few more red herrings and then an interesting conclusion.

The British Library helpfully prints a note about content at the beginning of these books now, advising that we might meet with opinions and stereotypes which wouldn't fly today. I think this is very much the right thing to do with older books and this one is a good case for why.

On the whole, it's an engaging mystery with plenty of dark humour to help it along, but there's a vein of misogyny, especially in the conclusion that I'd dislike in a contemporary novel. In a book that was first published 90 years ago, it's part of what makes it interesting. 

Beyond that I enjoy Sheringham's ego, and Berkeley's pleasure in occasionally puncturing it, Roger is less annoying to me than some (I'm looking at you Peter Wimsey and Mrs Bradley). Altogether an excellent book to escape into when current events are just Too Much. 

Thursday, April 7, 2022

The Book of Preserves and Making Wine Jellies

It hit me this morning, whilst writing dates on customer orders, that in less than 2 months I'll be heading up to Scotland for a solid couple of weeks of ore wedding prep, and that all the jobs and planning I've been thinking we have loads of time for need some more urgent attention.

This includes making a cake (the cake?) and anything else I want in the way of special jellies or chutneys - the fun bits compared to the list writing and checking prices for things. As a family with a lot of catering experience doing the food ourselves makes a lot of sense, and with proper planning is less stressful, in my view, than relying on caterers. More so in a Covid world where it means we can be much more reactive about how much food we buy. I never imagined planning a wedding around how easy it might be to cancel or adapt due to sickness or potential lockdowns.

The really lovely part of doing it this way is being able to make things I've wanted to try for a while, and so it is with the Sauternes jelly in Pam-the-Jam Corbin's The Book of Preserves. Pam's River Cottage handbook was my first proper introduction to jam making and is still a favourite. In this book, she's gone out of her way to lower the sugar to fruit ratio - although when half the liquid is a sweet wine I'm guessing the actual ratio of sugars is complicated. 

I'm lucky, after a couple of decades in the wine business I have a few bottles of sweet wine hanging around, most bought at rock bottom prices when they were being cleared from supermarket shelves and some that I wasn't too precious about to mind using to make a couple of jars of jelly with. I wouldn't buy a Sauternes to cook with. I don't believe in cooking with a wine I wouldn't drink and would prefer not to spend Sauternes money on something destined to be a condiment.

Happily, I had a bottle of Monbazillac (same grapes, same method, neighbouring areas, slightly more modest price tag at around £10 for a half bottle) that really needed using. It's a process to make this, and jelly - slightly more demanding than the usual chuck fruit in a pan, boil, strain, boil with sugar - but not much. The relatively small quantities mean it's quick to cook once you reach the second boiling stage, it also means you have to be more attentive than usual to timings. Not least because over boiling would strip out and over sweeten the wine character.

I also had a last half bottle of Trockenbeerenauslase that a friend found for about £2.50 a bottle (basically theft - this stuff should be seriously expensive - she very sensibly bought the lot) somewhere like the Co-Op a few years ago. It also needed using so although it felt really decadent I also made a batch of jelly with this. I'm glad I did, this is a wine made from Riesling grapes that have been struck with botrytis (noble rot) so are mostly dried out but have very high concentrations of sugar - the trocken in this instance means grapes that have dried rather than dry wine. the resulting wine is rich, sweet, honeyed, complex, and wonderful, something that really deserves to be treated with the highest respect. So yes, I do feel a bit guilty about boiling it.

On the other hand, the quick cooking time of the recipe along with a grape, lemon, and apple stock for pectin, make a jelly that preserves all the magic of the wine's original flavour. This really is a celebratory thing for a special occasion.

Take 500g of green grapes, wash them, remove them from their stalks, blitz them in a food processor and put in a heavy based pan along with a blitzed unwaxed lemon and about 250g of blitzed or finely chopped cooking apple. Add 400ml of water and bring to a simmer. Boil with a pan lid on for about 25 mins. Strain into a bowl, ideally overnight, it's better to really let the sediment settle. 

Next day measure out 400g of granulated sugar and sterilise some jars - small ones are best and this should make enough to fill 5 125ml jars - I filled two 300 ml jars with a bit leftover, and put a plate in the fridge for wrinkle testing. Pour 350ml of the grape stock into a heavy bottomed pan with enough room in it to allow for plenty of boiling, be careful not to shake up the sediment at the bottom too much. Heat this to a steady boil, add the sugar a third at a time stirring gently to help it dissolve and then allow to boil steadily for about 5 mins. Remove the pan from the heat and stir to disperse the bubbles covering the surface. 

Add 375ml (a half bottle) of a reasonably good sweet wine. Muscat is probably the least expensive option, but this is meant to be really special and is no time for the strictest economy. Bring back up to a steady boil for 8-9 minutes, I use a jam thermometer and the wrinkle test - I find the latter to be more reliable, and start checking from this point to see how it's setting. If it's looking good remove from the heat, you can stir in a couple of tablespoons of brandy at this point if you want. (In for a penny, in for a pound). Allow the jelly to sit for a couple of minutes and then pour into the warm, sterilised jars. Seal immediately. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

A Very Big Jumper

In the spirit of celebrating the not quite successes, as well as the resounding triumphs here's the story of a very big jumper. I started knitting this at the beginning of February and finally finished it yesterday - I'd realised a couple of weeks ago that it was going to be far too big, but had gone past the point of frogging it all back by then, and was still sort of hoping it would work on me.

When I tried it on today it was clearly not the case, I might as well have been wearing a blanket. It's a shame because there's a lot I love about this jumper - the colours I chose were perfect (rare that I'm completely happy with this part), it was easy to knit but I also learned a few newish things, and the shape is great. The pattern was Lower Leogh from Mary Jane Mucklestone's 'Fair Isle Weekend' and the reason it looks like a young tent on me is that I messed up the maths when I changed the gauge I wanted to knit it in.

It's meant to be a jumper with a good bit of positive ease, it's also meant to be short and boxy which isn't a style that really suits me. Fortunately, it's an easy pattern to add length too - and I did get the length of both jumper and sleeve right so that's another win. Unfortunately despite some swatching it turned out that going down two sizes from the one I thought I needed with the original gauge wasn't enough.

The reason for the gauge change is that I wanted a summer jumper that would have a really lightweight feel to it - and again I got this spot on by going up 2 sizes with the needles - my freshly washed jumper feels as soft and light as cashmere (I think it's going to my sister, she's in luck). 

Anyway, I've knitted, I've learned, I've started a second Lower Leogh going down another 2 sizes and I'm going to completely recalculate the neckline so that it isn't as wide and doesn't drop down to mid-torso. By the time I finish it, I'll probably want to knit a third one in Mary Jane's original gauge to keep out cold winter winds.

Monday, April 4, 2022

The Heeding - Rob Cowen and Nick Hayes

I first wrote about 'The Heeding' on July 5th last year (2021) when it was all the talk of 'freedom' day and an end to restrictions. It felt appropriate at the time, 'The Heeding' records Rob Cowen's pandemic year in poetry accompanied by Nick Hayes prints. My copy was a proof of the hardback, now out in paperback, and it told me that the June 17th publication date was chosen to coincide with the end of the first lockdown. Leicester never really came out of lockdown which made that an oddly disconnecting thing to read in what still felt like a disconnected time.

For all that it's only in the last weeks that England has more or less finally abandoned masks, and only now that Scotland is considering it. Currently, there's an average of 160 people a day dying with Covid. The oddness never went, life goes on, but normal is definitely different now. That's underlined by reading last year's review (mildly edited here) and thinking about where we are, or where I am, now. 

I was familiar with Rob Cowen's nature writing before 'The Heeding', but not his poetry, and I'll be honest, the vague comparison to 'The Lost Words' on the cover didn't do anything to prepare me for what I'd find inside. I don't think it's a particularly helpful selling point either - these two are worlds apart.

What actually happened is that 'The Heeding' regularly, efficiently, and comprehensively reduced me to tears - which was essentially cathartic. It's been a strange time, and whilst I can honestly say it's not been the worst time for me, I'm not unscathed by it either. 

The last year, for someone who lives alone, has a wide circle of friends online, was in a congenial bubble, escaped any major health problems, and who has the sort of hobbies that thrive in relative isolation (knitting and reading do) was often quite pleasant. Which I sometimes feel a bit guilty about. 'The Heeding' shows a different sort of year, and this is where I realise that this time has touched me more than I thought it had; I've missed that sense of being a part of a community, of insight into other people's lives. Reading this shows me, again and again, how limited my world has become, how safe, how circumscribed. 

'The Heeding' catches other moments and moods too, things I recognise with an uncomplicated kind of pleasure, but more than anything it feels to me like a record of the strangeness of the times, of briefly silent streets, of noticing the things that had become almost invisible, of memories from this time last year tripping us up just when we thought we were reconciled to the new status quo, and the fears and attempts to comfort shared in phone calls and messages. The bubbling undercurrent of anger and frustration that boiled over into last summer's protests, and has bubbled away ever since is here too, and much more.

Nick Hayes's graphic, sometimes brutal, sometimes gentle, black and white imagery perfectly matches the poems. Together they feel like something elemental. This wasn't quite my pandemic year, but I recognise it, and when I need to remind myself of what this time was like this is where I'll turn. 

This collection is still one of the best records of the beginning of the pandemic I've read, still evokes the early unreality of lockdown brilliantly, and as time is passing, memories fading, it's more worthwhile than ever to read and remember. 

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Back Again and Cornucopia

Sorry for the silence, it's been a mix of being overwhelmed by the news, wedding planning, and poor connectivity. We've been up in Scotland for a few days with my mother and sister so that they could work out where everything was pre-wedding. We also took the dog, who absolutely had the time of her life. There were pheasants in the garden that she spent quality time staring at out of the window, hares sprang up beneath her feet (she's well past the age of being able to give serious chase, a dozen yards does it).

I cannot overstate how great it was to have fields with wide margins to walk around where you could let a dog off without worrying about meeting anybody else, disturbing nesting birds, busy roads, or trespassing. I wish this were common in England as well as Scotland.

The unexpected highlight of the trip was following a sign for a bookshop from the museum in Hawick (which was closed but is on my list to go to when we're back up there for the wedding), it took us around the corner and landed us in Cornucopia Magazine's office, bookshop, exhibition space. The bookshop is mostly Turkish related titles, with the surprise addition of Shetland-born Edinburgh-based poet, Christine De Luca's back catalogue, she'd been there for an event.

I'm genuinely excited by this find and looking forward to going back when we're back in the area pre-wedding. It was also a reminder to look beyond somewhat dilapidated high streets - there's a lot of interesting stuff going on in Hawick if you look for it (the Borders distillery is also worth checking out if you're in the area). 

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Wine Tasting

It's not actually that often that I miss the wine world, maybe only days like today when I've been buying quantities of it and really miss the discounts. I do miss the people, but that's a separate issue... I also promised a colleague some how-to-taste wine notes which has had me thinking back too, and in case they're useful to anyone else I'm sharing them here.

Tasting and drinking wine are not the same things, and whilst it isn't practical, or even desirable to give your full critical attention to every bottle you open you will get more out of the whole thing if you have a grasp of the basics. The first thing to understand about the process is how central your sense of smell is to what you taste. There's a really easy and kind of fun way to demonstrate this with the help of a spoon of sugar and a pinch of cinnamon - mix the two together, pinch your nose so you can't smell anything, and put a little of the sugar on your tongue and think about what you can taste. After a moment un-pinch your nose, breathe in through your mouth, out through your nose, and see the difference...

It's also worth swishing cold tea around your mouth to see where tannin hits and sucking on a lemon to understand where you detect acidity and sourness if you really want to be thorough - and now you have a good idea of how your mouth and nose are working it's time to begin.

Glassware - a reasonably thin glass gives a better experience, but the most important thing is that its tulip shaped (with the top tapering inwards), this collects the aromas and makes them easier for you to smell. Should you want to swirl your wine around it also makes it harder to spill. Once the wine is poured - and keep samples small - have a good look at it. A piece of white paper is useful at this point. It should be nice and clean-looking - and clear. A wine full of sediment will taste bitter. If you have that bit of paper the colour of the rim (where wine meets glass at the top) will tell you a bit about the age of your wine. Red wines lose their colour over time, so if it's a purple or ruby kind of colour you have something young - brick red and it's ageing. White wines will also take on a more honeyed colour with age. 

The next thing to look for are the 'legs'. These are the trails of wine that slip back down the inside of the glass after you give it a swirl. The thicker and slower moving they are the higher the alcohol content. 

When you've had a good look at your wine it's time to sniff it. Unless it's very cold, or very young, the swirling business isn't really necessary. What that does is help oxygenate the wine and bring out the aromas, the warmer the wine the more you will smell. Very cold wine will be 'dumb', room temperature is fine for red, white wine should be a little warmer than fridge temperature, but not much. Talking about all the things you can smell might seem pretentious but it's genuinely a handy way of describing, and remembering, what you're tasting so be specific - what kind of fruit? Red, black, stone, apple? Strawberry, raspberry, blackberry? These things will help you identify the grapes used. Toast and vanilla will tell you that the wine has been oak-aged, and so on. 

Now is also the time to think about a couple of common faults - corked wine (wine tainted by TCA, not wine with cork in it) will have a distinctive damp/mouldy cardboard smell. Don't drink it, it won't harm you but it tastes like it smells. Rare now, but if you get a strong smell of sulphur leave the wine to one side until it fades. Sulpher isn't a bad thing in wine, it's been used since Roman times to stabilise and preserve - for an idea of what it's doing have a look at ordinary apricot coloured dried apricots (full of sulphur) and the dark brown organic ones. Some sulphur is also a naturally occurring part of the winemaking process. If your wine doesn't smell of anything much let it warm up a little and maybe gently swirl it around, 

Once you've had a good sniff it's finally time to taste the wine - take a sip, swish it thoroughly around your mouth, note if it has tannins (that grippy, cold tea, effect on the sides of your tongue - the younger the (red) wine the stronger the tannins, they soften out as wine ages or warms up. With white wine are you getting lovely fresh acidity (think about the difference between this and bitterness - they're not the same) or is it flabby and dull? Are all the elements well balanced or do you just feel like you're sucking a lemon again? Practice breathing in through your mouth and out through your nose without dribbling (it happens), note if the aromas you identified when nosing the wine translate into the same flavours in the mouth, or if they've changed - what can you taste - again, be specific.

If you're tasting a lot of wine now is a good time to spit it out (into something sensible, and preferably closed, spittoons are kind of disgusting to deal with). You can always go back to the wines you really liked. Plain crackers and water are a good palate cleanser between wines, sniffing coffee beans will help recalibrate your nose - and failing these the skin on the back of your hand.

The finish! This is how long you can detect the flavours and aromas whilst you breathe in and out after drinking. The longer the better!

Sunday, March 13, 2022


I didn't mean to leave it so long between posts, but with everything that's going on at the moment, home and abroad, I haven't managed to do much sensible reading. I've dipped in and out of a handful of books I haven't really liked or got much to say about. Most of them have been Tik Tok favourites and are primarily aimed at a younger audience who also enjoy fantasy more than I do.

It's been useful for me to read bits of them from a work perspective - they're hugely popular with a significant part of our customer base, and I can see why. I've not really had any interest in reading anything more demanding either, and they've stopped me doom scrolling for which I'm grateful. A better use of my time was spending part of my weekend off with mum and her dog though. Some decent walks, and a lot of snuggling on the sofa, and eventually (after the dog had scared off what we think might have been a would-be burglar from getting in the garden in the early hours) on my bed - but she'd earned duvet and a blast of electric blanket privileges by then, and I was glad of the company. 

This evening though I've finally had a go at a recipe I've been contemplating for a week or more. I've been following the Cook for Ukraine hashtag (the just giving page is here #CookForUkraine all proceeds are going to Unicef). When I was looking through Olia Hercules 'Summer Cooking' for rhubarb inspiration the only reference I found was for some filled buns in the Summer Kitchen Memories. I had a bit of a google for something like a recipe without much luck so I've started making one up and this is my first attempt. 

The Summer Kitchen Recipes section is one of the things that make 'Summer Kitchens' such a special book, and these accounts have even more resonance now. It's Sofia Vozniuk's memory that bought up rhubarb. She spent her childhood in the Volyn region near the Polish border and she talks about sweet yeasted buns filled with rhubarb, the tops brushed with beaten egg applied by cockerel feathers.

As Easter more or less coincides with the beginning of garden rhubarb (rather than forced rhubarb) I've taken a paska (traditional Slavic Easter bread) and adapted it a bit. For the dough, gently warm 150ml whole milk with 50g of unsalted butter until the butter has melted. Leave a pinch of saffron strands to steep in 1 tablespoon of boiling water. Mix 350g of white bread flour, a teaspoon of ground cardamom 1/2 teaspoon of fine salt, 85g of granulated sugar, 2 sachets of instant yeast, a beaten egg, 1/2 a teaspoon of vanilla extract, and 1/2 a teaspoon of almond extract, add the milk and butter mix. Knead with a dough hook for 5 - 10 minutes then cover in a bowl and let double in size (should take about an hour). 

Knock back the dough and let it rise again for half an hour. Chop up about 100g of tender new rhubarb into cm long chunks, mix it up with a generous spoonful of sugar. I also added some vanilla paste, but I'm not sure it was necessary. Divide the dough into 8 more or less equal lumps, flatten each one slightly and put a scant dessert spoon of rhubarb in the middle. Fold the dough around it until it's a nice bun shape, and place on a baking sheet. Cook in a hot oven (around 180C fan for about 15 mins, or until they sound hollow. If they're colouring too much cover with baking paper.

I iced the first bun with an almond and rhubarb glaze - didn't much like it, so won't be bothering to do that again. I will be donating to #CookForUkraine though, and having another go at getting this recipe just so. It's good at the moment but not perfect so do feel free to tinker. 

Saturday, March 5, 2022

Rizzio - Denise Mina

There are a lot of things I'm loving about the Polygon Darklands series not the least of which is that it's already introduced me to two writers I wouldn't otherwise have paid any attention to. I had heard of Jenni Fagan who's Hex is spectacular enough to make me think I might pick up 'Luckenbooth', but I hadn't heard of Denise Mina at all, and wouldn't have paid much attention to her books if I saw them as contemporary crime really isn't my normal choice of reading. 

I'm intrigued now though as I really loved this book. David Rizzio was murdered in front of a heavily pregnant Mary on the 9th of March 1566 as the starting point of a failed coup. Her husband, Lord Darnley was in on the plot - there's speculation that he tried to ensure Mary miscarried the future King James and hoped that she might die in the process so that he could claim the Scottish crown for himself. 

Anybody who has visited Holyrood in Edinburgh, or has an interest in Mary, will be familiar with the story, which I think increases in its power to shock over time. Rizzio was Mary's secretary and confidant, they were eating supper with a group of other nobles when armed men burst in on them and slaughtered him, despite her efforts to protect him. Half the nobles of Scotland were involved in the plot, and whilst on one level it failed - Mary got away, and her child survived, it's also the beginning of the end for her. 

Most of the action takes place on the day and night of the assassination, and it's utterly compelling. This is only a novella, little more than 100 pages long but it feels monumental. Mina is a genius at mixing established historical facts and detail with supposition and commentary. The characters come to life in her hands; drunk, scared, determined, ruthless, ambitious, cowardly, dishonest, weak, desperate, calculating, brave, and surprising - everything is here. 

Everything about this book worked for me. I'm not going to compare it directly to Hex, they're different beasts altogether - Hex had the greater emotional punch for me but Rizzio is the book I'll be recommending to anyone who stands still long enough for the way it relates history, for how compelling it is, and for just being an all-round masterclass in story telling. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Hex - Jenni Fagan

I'm getting out of sync with everything - not helped by a long night waiting for an engineer to turn up and turn off a fire alarm yesterday. It went off at 9.30pm, finally got to bed around 12.45am and I've been a grumpy mess all day on the back of it and a relatively sleepless night.

'Hex' is the last book I finished (over lunch yesterday), somewhere buried on my desk are a couple of others that I really should be writing about first, but that's all going to have to wait for my next day off and a proper tidy. 

Meanwhile 'Hex' was such a blisteringly good read it probably makes sense to write about it now whilst it's so fresh in my mind. It's the second of Polygon's Darkland series. Each book will take a defining episode from Scottish history - the first one was Denise Mina's 'Rizzio' which I read over the weekend and was also amazing (probably the next post), and sets a contemporary author loose on it. The first 2 are novella length which I assume will be the blueprint for the series and both deal with well-known but maybe not universally known moments.

'Hex' is set the night before the execution of Geillis Duncan for witchcraft on the 4th of December 1591. Geillis Duncan was unlucky, a teenage girl caught up in James VI's witch-hunting paranoia. Accused by her employer, David Seaton, she was tortured by him until she accused as many as 60 others. This kicked off the North Berwick witch trials, but these are also attitudes that the puritans transported to America and which go a long way to explaining the Salem witch trials too. 

Seaton's suspicions seem to have been based on Geillis Duncan's skill as a healer, and I share every bit of Jenni Fagan's anger about the way she, and the other accused women were treated. It honestly feels like it's scorching the page sometimes. Geillis tried to retract her confession and accusations before her execution, explaining that they were solely the result of the torture she endured. All of this is covered in 'Hex' which is framed as a conversation between Geillis and a woman called Iris who's (kind of) traveled through time from 2021 to see her through her last night.

'Hex' outlines the facts we know about Geillis, draws parallels with how women are still being treated (contemporary murders are referenced) and why. I'm aware that I'm doing a really bad job of explaining all this, but it's an immensely powerful, poetic, hopeful, and anger-inducing 100 pages that I can't recommend highly enough - although maybe best not read when you're feeling particularly fragile.

I knew a little bit about the North Berwick trials before I started reading, I've looked up a lot more since which must be at least part of the point of this series which really is shaping up to be remarkable. It would be easy to further sensationalise a story like this, but Fagan's handling is perfect The horror is there but with much more besides, so what we get is part fiction, part manifesto, and entirely a call to arms. 

Sunday, February 27, 2022

This Week

It's been a long and emotional week, what's happening in Ukraine began as unthinkable but is quickly starting to feel like it was inevitable with occasional flashes of worst-case scenarios which are not encouraging. 

I watched footage of the Berlin wall falling in my mid-teens, swiftly followed by footage from the Balkans as the map of Europe rearranged itself, and finally, relative peace that looked like it might stick to the point where I know I became complacent about it, even during the relatively recent examples of Russian aggression. Until Brexit and Trump, it felt like the world was slowly, with the occasional setback, set on an increasingly liberal trajectory. Does that ever seem naive now. 

I don't have any hot takes or helpful suggestions about fundraising, and even if I thought I did there are much more knowledgeable voices to listen to (I guess the Red Cross or Médecins Sans Frontières are always worth supporting though), but I am going to put in a word for a couple of cookbooks which are more or less the source of any knowledge I have about Ukraine.

This isn't as shallow as it might sound. Olia Hercules has written a lot about her native country, her family there, and the people she met researching and photographing her books. Every page is a reminder of the everyday lives of people, and the complicated ties to different countries that the Soviet Union created as it shifted those people around. The recipes show the diversity of experience and heritage, the photographs (when her first book, Mamushka, was published in 2015 the geopolitics were almost as volatile as now the risk in going to take those images was real enough to demand they signed safety waivers) bring a distant country to vivid life. 

Summer Kitchens from 2020 explores food and culture from every corner of Ukraine and is Hercules' best book to date - again it really brings her country and its people into your kitchen. For all the talk and footage of civilians in Ukraine's cities staying to fight, of old ladies handing out sunflower seeds to soldiers, and homemade petrol bombs, there must be so many more sitting in their homes worrying about what's coming and trying to do normal things like cook and eat when they can.

It's also worth mentioning Caroline Eden's Black Sea which mixes food with a wider portrait of the region, its culture, and history. This is what people are fighting for and it's the most accessible way I can think of to try and get a picture of what that is. 

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Foula, Island West of the Sun - Sheila Gear

I've enjoyed both the previous books from Northus, but 'Foula, Island West of the Sun' feels like something more. Tang and Broken Lights are important to Shetlands literary tradition and interesting from a historical perspective, they're also enjoyable enough to read for pleasure and not just to broaden knowledge. Sheila Gear's book is arguably more significant as a neglected/potential nature classic than it is a classic piece of Shetland writing.

I've been familiar enough with this book for almost as long as I can remember. Dad would have bought a copy when it first came out in 1983, I know I had one found in a second-hand shop for a while, but I'd never actually read it. Now turned out to be an excellent time to remedy that.

I grew up with the silhouette of Foula on the western horizon as a shifting landmark - sometimes completely hidden by cloud, often partly obscured by it, sometimes it felt tantalizingly close (close enough to make out houses) due to a freak of atmospheric conditions, but generally, it felt every one of the 14 miles over the sea that separates it from the mainland of Shetland. Remote, mysterious, somewhere to visit one day. Sheila Gear's grandfather bought Foula in the late 19th century and she spent childhood holidays there. At some point as an adult, and post zoology degree she returned, married an island man, and stayed.

Foula currently has a population of about 30 people, which has stayed stable for the last 40 or so years, it peaked in the 1880s at 267, but for most of its recorded history, the island supported around 150 people. When Sheila wrote this book life in Shetland was changing dramatically thanks to the money North sea oil was bringing in. For people on the mainland (the largest island that makes up the archipelago) it meant funding for everything from roads to leisure centres, real job choices, and a future for young people in the islands beyond the fishing industry. It also made places like Foula feel much more marginal as they get left behind whilst living conditions improve elsewhere.

Even in the 1970s what Sheila describes (no flushing toilet, water from a well, not even a sink, presumably no electricity, phone via a phonebox shared by much of the island) would have been common enough across the islands, certainly in the homes of older folk, by 1983 it was unusual anywhere but the outer islands where the costs and logistics of change are a considerable challenge. When she describes how they live it's done with a mixture of pride, humour, and defensiveness. 

Part of Sheila's reason for writing this book was to answer the question, why. Why is it important to preserve this way of life, and why does she choose to do it - the only answer she finds is love, and as she observes, love is not enough. The portrait of Foula, and to some extent, Shetland, at a point of great change for the islands, and the comprehensive overview of the wildlife and weather that make it such a unique place would each be enough to make the book worth reading, but that underlying question of 'why' is what makes it really significant.

It came as something of a shock to realise how little the conversation has moved on in the last 40 years, despite it being a hot topic again - do you re-culture or rewild the highlands and islands? Sheila's views are uncompromisingly honest, and not ones that will necessarily be popular. She has a tangible contempt for many of the tourists who visit her home and treat the inhabitants as a curiosity. Even when it's visitors they like there's always a sense of us and them, and she's very dismissive of incomers to the island who arrive without understanding what they're signing up for and inevitably leave within a year or two.

It's a thorny issue. Islands need young people, they need decent housing, and they need ways to make a living to sustain communities. The modern world has reached Foula, but it still gets weather-bound, and even when it doesn't getting things to the island will never be easy. Children still have to leave home and board from the age of 12 to carry on with their schooling, even getting home for weekends isn't a given. That's hard for any family to deal with. 

When Sheila talks about love, she partly means a love of the island that's been bred through generations of people living in a place that they know intimately. It's a sense of history and attachment that really helps in the depths of winter when hills that have been friendly all summer catch the wind so that it's like "the thunder of a tremendous sea about to overwhelm the whole world, and you will feel fear." Communities need to evolve, but they also need continuity to preserve the things that make them unique. Sheila, writing 40 years ago, says things we'd be wary of expressing now - but her points are valid, even if you don't entirely agree with them (I'm in two minds - broadly sympathetic to her point of view, but with reservations). 

My own answer to why it's important to support communities like Foula's after reading this is that it matters that we know there are other ways to live, different ways to measure success. Island life is a struggle, crofting is beyond heartbreaking at times - a late winter storm that kills lambs and sheep that you've struggled to bring into the world, ponies lost over cliffs, the constant worry over how to keep everything going - there are easier ways to live for sure. But to really belong to somewhere in the way that Sheila describes belonging to Foula - that's no small thing. 

For an outsiders view of the island, and a glimpse of some of the same personalities have a look at Alec Crawford's Treasure Islands

Sheila wouldn't approve but the 1937 film 'The Edge of the World' (which lead to decades of speculation that it would be evacuated St. Kilda style) was filmed on Foula and around Shetland and is well worth searching out to see some great footage of crofting life.

To see more of Foula follow the Foula Heritage page on facebook - it's a great way to see something of the island's character and wildlife. I'm in awe of the size of the Humpback pod they had earlier this winter.

Finally, I haven't (yet) ordered any wool from this site, mostly because I've already got an out of control stash, but you can directly support the island's crofters by buying Foula Wool, all in natural colours. 

Monday, February 21, 2022

Rhubarb and Custard buns

If I seem a bit obsessed with rhubarb at the moment it's because I, a woman who lives alone, bought 4 packs of it over the last 2 weeks, carried away by the vivid colour and iridescent sheen of the forced stalks, and now need to use it up before it turns to slimy mush. The reason I bought so much - I've been fantasizing about rhubarb all winter (I'm assuming we all have a couple of seasonal things that we get really excited about food-wise, mine are very definitely rhubarb and blood oranges) and had a long list of things I wanted to try. 

Unfortunately getting rhubarb in the city centre isn't actually that easy, and after a couple of miles walking, by the time I finally found some I got carried away. Rhubarb might well continue to feature for a while. 

After Zuza Zak's Peach and Elderflower breakfast buns (Here) I've wanted to play around a bit - one thing I really liked about this recipe is the small quantities it makes. Buns like these are best eaten really fresh, and these make just the right quantity to take to work and share, or for 3 or 4 people to make a breakfast of. 

For the dough, you need a sachet of instant yeast, 50g of caster sugar, 100ml of milk, 200g of plain flour, a pinch of salt, 25g of butter, a teaspoon of vanilla paste, or vanilla extract, and an egg yolk (keep the white). Put the butter in the milk and gently heat until the butter has melted, whilst that's doing put the rest of the ingredients in a bowl. This is a sticky dough so I prefer to make it in a stand mixer or with an electric hand mixer with hook attachments. When the butter has melted and the milk mix is warm rather than hot add it to the dry ingredients and knead for between five and 10 minutes. The dough should be glossy and smooth. Now set it aside in a covered bowl to double in size.

For the rhubarb and custard filling, you need about 150g of rhubarb, which is a couple of tender young stalks. Chop these into roughly cm long chunks and put in a pan with a couple of dessert spoons of sugar, 1 dessert spoon of birds custard powder, and a teaspoon of vanilla essence. Gently heat and keep stirring until the rhubarb has collapsed into a pink cloud and the whole thing is thick and jammy. Set aside to cool, and butter or line a cake tin about 7 inches wide  - a sandwich tin is perfect.

When the dough is doubled in size roll it out into a rectangle roughly 1 cm thick, spread the rhubarb over it leaving a good margin at the edges, roll into a long sausage, cut into 6 or 7 pieces and arrange carefully in the tin. Leave for about 20 minutes to double in size and roughly blitz about 25g of hazelnuts, mix these with a generous tablespoon of demerara sugar. Heat the oven to 180 degrees C.

When the buns are ready to go into the oven, brush them with egg white and sprinkle over the nut mix. Cook for about 20 mins until golden. Allow to cool for a few minutes once out the oven and they're good to go. 

Saturday, February 19, 2022

Near The Bear North, An ABC by Mick Manning

The staff discount working in a book shop is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, getting significantly reduced-price books is great, on the other, I already have too many books and don't need any more encouragement. In the case of 'Near the Bear North' I'm just seeing it as a good thing though. 

I'm a big fan of Mick Manning's pochoir prints, I have one on my wall that I bought as part of the Artists Support Pledge and really love, there would be more if I had space and money. This alphabet book put together for Design for Today (worth following on insta Here) and published in 2019 has been on my wish list for a while. It belatedly occurred to me a couple of weeks ago that I'd be crazy not to order it, and now the penny has finally dropped I'm delighted I did. 

Inspired by fauna and flora from the north of England to Arctic Scandinavia this is a really nice thing to have. D was skeptical when I first showed it to him (why are you buying children's books for yourself?) and was then as charmed by it as I am. 

It is possible that my favourite thing about this book is that Latin names are used, so H, which is too often for things like hippo, here gets Hirundo Rustica - the swallow, a bird I really love. There are other welcome surprises throughout, including Manning's distinctive humour. The end result is an alphabet book that would make a great present for any young child, and anybody who enjoys good design/Manning's art. At £14.95 it's a bargain - any good book shop will order it for you or you can get it direct from Design For Today

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Rhubarb, Blood Orange, and Hazelnut Cake

I love the forced rhubarb we get at this time of year and am buying it whenever I see it, which isn't as often as I like. Same with the blood oranges, a little bit easier to find, but prone to going off really quickly thanks to their thin skins, so sometimes I have to use my stash in a hurry. 

I had both rhubarb and blood oranges at the weekend and with Valentine's day in the offing, it seemed like a really good time to continue the quest to discover a really good rhubarb cake recipe. This one is as close as I've got, with an edge on a streusel cake I really like. The juice from plain oranges would be fine, but the blood oranges are worth the effort if you can find them for the extra zing they have. I particularly like this cake for dessert, and definitely think it's better the day after it's made - the orange flavours really come out then.

Lightly blitz 100g of whole hazelnuts - you want some quite large chunks of nut left for texture, and chop 350 - 400g of rhubarb into small chunks about a cm wide - set the rhubarb aside in a bowl with a tablespoon of sugar. Line a loose-bottomed 21cm cake tin, and preheat your oven to gas 5, fan 165c, conventional oven 180C. You then need 3 ounces of white sugar and 3 ounces of golden sugar, beaten with 6 ounces of butter until light and fluffy. Add 3 eggs a bit at a time along with 6 ounces of self-raising flour, and the juice of 1 blood orange. 

Put the batter in the prepared tin, and top with the rhubarb - it'll look like a lot, but this is quite a damp cake. Make sure there isn't too much piled up in the middle. Mix 2 tablespoons of demerara sugar (or granulated if easier) in with the nuts and distribute this evenly over the top of the cake too. Bake for 45 minutes to an hour, adjusting your oven as necessary (mine runs hot so I tend to turn it down towards the end of the bake time).

When the cake looks almost ready juice 2 more oranges and make a syrup with a couple of dessert spoons of sugar. As soon as the cake comes out of the oven (and a skewer comes clean out of the cake) pour the syrup over it, again making sure it's well distributed. Allow to cool completely, remove from the tin, and serve with whipped cream. 

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Starting a new Jumper

There is no time, and I write this as a woman searching for a wedding dress when I more regret extra weight than when casting on a jumper. So many stitches, that will turn into so many hundreds of thousands of stitches and maybe a kilometer of yarn knitted up - it's a daunting prospect, especially when a pattern calls for negative ease and smaller gauge needles.

You have to be in the right mood for this kind of commitment, and currently, I am, I also have a few cones of yarn that are calling out to be used - my yarn stash has far exceeded problematic proportions and is now the equivalent of a wooly tsunami threatening to take over my flat. The cones take up relatively little space but have a certain presence about them which makes me feel a little defensive. Buying one is a serious statement of intent; a big project is going to happen... And then for ages, they never seem like the right colour, or they're not the right weight yarn, or they're not portable enough.

Anyway, contrary to the all-over jumper I'd carefully planned and spent hours picking colours for I've started a Lower Leogh from Mary Jane Mucklestone's 'Fair Isle Weekend'. I'm adapting it quite a bit - I need it much longer than the original pattern - I'm long in the body and round enough not to suit a cropped jumper at all, and I want something very lightweight so I've changed the gauge of the needles for something a lot bigger. 

I started this very much on a whim so haven't swatched, taken proper measurements, didn't think through the colours very carefully, and am keeping my fingers crossed. The colours for the fair isle strip came out of my scrap bag, I wanted blues to go with the dark brown and these fitted the bill, the very pale shade is actually a very pale green (rye) which I like a lot but doesn't necessarily play well with other colours, fortunately, I'm happy with what it's doing here. 

Increasing the needle size, but not the yarn weight, for fair isle patterns means losing definition in the pattern. I could have got around this by using high contrast colours, or I can embrace it. The muted palate here has created a painterly/impressionistic feel to the pattern which I like, and I think works well for the kind of jumper I want. The stockinette section I've knitted so far has the lightweight feel I wanted.

I chose this Jumper because it's going to make me learn a lot about shaping and construction - the only other jumper I've knitted was just a tube with sleeves attached (I like it, and it's shaped itself to me much better than I expected), and doesn't call for any seeking. It's slow going at the moment with a lot of increases to look forward too, but so far I'm happy with how it's shaping up. 

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Pandora - Susan Stokes-Chapman

This is the first book of the year that really swept me away, it's a fabulous debut novel from Susan Stokes-Chapman which just does everything right from start to finish as far as I'm concerned. I was initially drawn in by the cover so asked for a review copy through work hoping to enjoy it but without any greater expectations. 

What I got was a really enjoyable historical mystery with a little bit of romance. The book opens in December 1798 with somebody diving on a shipwreck to try and retrieve Something. Something isn't quite as it should be. From there we move to London in the new year and find Dora Blake in an attic hunched over her workbench working in some jewelry.

She has a pet magpie and a troubled relationship with her uncle and his mistress who are now her guardians. He's run down the family antiquities business and Dora is desperate to find a way out - preferably independence through her jewelry designs. As the plot progresses we meet Edward and his friend Cornelius. Edward is also desperate to find a way out of his working-class background, and into the world of antiquarians. Cornelius has his own issues to deal with.

The mysterious object that was being rescued arrives in London and is delivered to Pandora's uncle, it turns out to be a pithos of great age depicting the myth of Pandora. The men who retrieved it are convinced it's cursed and strange things do seem to happen around it. There's also the question of how a dodgy antique dealer has come by such a thing...

Pandora is an engaging heroine, her desire for independence as a craftswoman does not feel at odds with the era, although her struggle to be taken seriously also feels about right. Her Uncle is a splendidly drawn hero, and Edward and Cornelius are equally appealing characters to get to know and unravel. 

I don't want to give away too many spoilers here, but the combination of mystery and mythology worked really well for me. Maybe stop reading this paragraph if you're thinking of reading this book soon. There's a constant question over what the pithos actually is - an outstanding antique that's survived millennia against the odds, or something actually out of legend? It works for me because there's never a definitive answer so there's something of the weird or ghost story here too. The balance between all the elements, including the growing relationship between Dora and Edward makes the perfect page turner. I'll read more profound books this year, probably, but I'll be doing well to find something I enjoy more for sheer craft and fun.

Something else that really marks this book out is Stokes-Chapman's brilliant, and occasionally disgusting way of describing the smells of her London. Everything else, apart from the jewelry, is sketched in, but the smells, especially the bad ones, she goes to town on. It gives the book a particular vividness and adds to the gothic/macabre atmosphere most convincingly.

The final thing that I really appreciated was the afterword - I'm a pedant at the best of times so there were a few details, especially about the opening dive that I questioned. The afterword explains that the diving suit, along with a few other things, had been written about theoretically, but never made or used. It feels like it could be a nod to Mary Shelley's proto science fiction, and left me more than happy to suspend my disbelief. 


Friday, February 4, 2022

Stoorbra Stocking

I meant to write about a book (all week) but I've also got a strong urge to knit at the moment, and having finally got myself together to finish the supersized sock I intended to send someone as a Christmas stocking last year I've cast on a jumper I had no intention of knitting yesterday. 

I had spent ages sorting out colours for a second Fait Isle all-over but that'll wait. My dad is also demanding a pair of socks for himself and I probably need to get started on those sometime soon too - so it's busy around here. 

The single sock is one of Alison Rendall's (her Instagram is here) Stoorbra's - a pattern I really love, done on a larger needle size and with DK weight yarn. I'm really pleased with the colours - the greens were a random selection that I had, but they couldn't have been planned better - at least not by me. The red I bought last summer with this in mind.

I might be solidly middle-aged but my other still does stockings for us, and I still love it (there was a period in my 20's when I thought it was lame, but I quickly grew out of that). We've used the same sewn stockings for decades and I won't be changing them, but part of me misses dad's woolen wellie socks, all lumpy and mishappen with presents that we had as properly little kids. This sock will hopefully stay with someone for all their childhood and beyond.

It's also a great excuse to show off just what a great pattern this is - the perfect decorative item to hang up and enjoy.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Ten Books from my To Be Read Pile

There are far more than ten books on this pile, and plenty more which look great. I had reading commitments last year that I entirely failed to keep whilst readjusting to full-time work, and thanks to working in a bookshop I've acquired an actually horrifying number of new reading commitments. In an effort to get some sort of grip on this I've seriously curtailed my book-buying - unnecessary anyway because of the number of proofs and review copies coming through the door and plan a few round-ups of the best looking of them over the next few months. 

Shalimar by Davina Quinlivan is due out from Little Toller in March and is blessedly short so I have high hopes of reading it soon and quickly. It tells the story of Quinlivan's Anglo -Asian family in a blend of nature writing, magical realism, and memoir. All of that sounds brilliant to me. 

Jumping Jenny by Anthony Berkeley is one of the latest British Library Crime Classics. I liked the last Berkeley I read, I'm equally confident I'll like this one. I find it hard to go wrong with classic crime. Every few weeks I'll be in the mood for it, and it very rarely disappoints me. This one starts with a murder at a fancy dress party where the theme is murderers and their victims. I'm already intrigued.

The Word Hord by Hana Videen is an exploration of daily life in old English, and something I was given for Christmas, it's also a book I wanted. I've started following Hana Videen and her @OEWordhord account on twitter as preparation/encouragement to actually read it rather than leaving it lying around where it does, both in my opinion and social circles, look really cool. 

Latchkey Ladies by Marjorie Grant is just out from Handheld Press. I've been particularly excited to read this ever since 'Dreaming of Rose' where it's mentioned at length. Four women living in London at the end of World War I treading a fine line between independence and disaster - I'm expecting big things. 

Foula, Island West if the Sun - Sheila Gear. I was sent from Northus well before Christmas, and still, in my head think it's only just arrived. I'm going to start taking it to work with me. Foula is an island off the west coast of Shetland that fascinates me, and this book, first published in 1983 will be a mix of nostalgia for the Shetland I remember and interest for an island that's always been on the horizon but I've never visited. 

Aurochs and Auks - John Burnside. Essays on mortality and extinction - I started reading this a couple of months ago and thought it was extraordinary, then got swept up in other things. It's high on my list to finish. 

The Leviathan by Rosie Andrews looks set to be a biggish release in February. I got a proof, along with a colleague, through work. We both think it looks exceptional; "beguiling tale(s) of superstition, myth, and murder" strongly appeal to us. It's one of a handful of very promising books for this year I've got my hands on.

Wild and Wicked things by Francesca May is another one of these, it comes out at the end of March. It is apparently The Great Gatsby meets Practical magic in a lush, decadent gothic novel. It's also set near Whitby (unlike The Great Gatsby) and has plenty of queer characters. Francesca May is Derby based, so practically local, the first few chapters were promising and I'm looking forward to reading more.

The Winter Gust by W.C. Ryan is already out and getting excellent reviews, again the first few chapters are really promising. It's set in Ireland in 1921 against a backdrop of the troubles. So far I've only really read fiction by Molly Keane and Elizabeth Bowen that touches on this, another reason to be interested in seeing what Ryan will do with the subject. 

Pandora by Susan Stokes-Chapman came out this week and is last but by no means least on this list. When I got the books together the other day this was the one I picked off the pile first, partly because of the lush cover design. I would have posted this on Friday if I hadn't started reading. I think this book deserves to be big, there will be a proper review of it really soon.