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.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

My Top Ten Books of 2021

Finally sneaking in just before the end of January. I like looking back on what I've read in the previous year, there are the obvious books that have never been off my mind, the ones that with hindsight really stand out, already half-forgotten gems that are a delight to be reminded of, and the overall sense of the last year that it gives me.

2021 was a roller coaster. My mother bookended it with a hip replacement late 2020 and a broken ankle late 2021 both of which meant lots of dog walking for me (the silver lining), I thought for a while that I might ever find a job I would like (or at all), then found a job I liked within a couple of weeks of getting engaged (after almost 15 years together that was more of a surprise than the job). The new job has bought new friends, and I've had plenty of opportunities to appreciate the kindness and all-around brilliance of old ones. 

All of it has been overshadowed by the pandemic and that's reflected in my reading with a whole lot more comfort books this year, not all of which I read, and much less reading generally than I should have done. The longlist for my top ten books had a lot more food and drink titles in it, another pandemic hangover and symptom of generally shot concentration. 

Advent - Anja Dunk. Without a doubt my book of the year, this is everything that was positive about 2021. It's full of love, enthusiasm, and knowledge. It absolutely makes you want to share what you've made, gave me the best comfort food of the year (roasted cinnamon almonds). Being able to make and share is a not to be taken for granted pleasure these days, I love the recipes and I love the spirit of the book. It's advent specific and already I'm anticipating getting stuck into it again next year. 

Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails is another wondrous book, and one I'm really pleased to have. It's chock full of interesting things, beating not just Richard Godwin's 'The Spirits' (very good cocktail making guide) to my top ten, but also knocking The Golden Treasury of Scottish Verse out of the running for best book to dip in and out of. Honestly, if you have even a passing interest in drinks you really need this one. 

Sunless Solstice edited by Tanya Kirk and Lucy Evans. Another Christmassy title, but such a good collection of ghost stories ranging from funny to really dark, and for all the weird I read in the last year - which was a reasonable amount - it was definitely the best collection, although Cornish Horrors from the same British Library collection was a close contender. 

O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker is definitely my discovery of the year, and one that I wish I could persuade more people to read. It's dark, funny, tragic, and brilliant. It deserves to be the kind of cult hit that Shirley Jackson's books are and if our reading taste coincides at all (I assume it does or you wouldn't be here) please take a look at it. 

Dreaming of Rose - Sarah le Fanu. Books I didn't expect much from seem to have been a real feature of the last year. I approached this one in a spirit of mild interest and ended up racing through it. I even bought some more Rose Macauley on the back of it (still mostly unread). It's a wonderful book about writers, writing, and everyday life. Sarah le Fanu's excitement when things are going well (such as finding herself in the same hotel that Rose wrote about) is irresistible. 

The Eternal Season. I really like Stephen Rutt's writing, and from the occasional Twitter interaction, he seems every bit as great off the page as on it. His books are interesting, timely, and accessible. I really like the way that he focuses on much that's local or a day trip away to illustrate the wider points he makes. it's important for a whole lot of reasons. He's also very good at explaining complex things in a  way that makes sense but doesn't feel dumbed down. That's a gift. 

The Flint Anchor I continue to be surprised by Sylvia Townsend Warner, maybe because I was initially underwhelmed by 'Lolly Willows' which is so often held to be her best book. It's great, but this examination of love and duty was even better. I came very close to missing out on her altogether (thanks to Helen's reading weeks I didn't) I'm very grateful I didn't. 

What White People Can do Next - Emma Dabiri. Short book, big ideas that go far beyond the immediate discussion of racism. I read this in A&E and hardly noticed the wait at all. It's full of clear good sense and I really think a lot of people could benefit from reading it for the way she discusses performative allyship against genuine coalition. 

Tales from Russian Folklore - Alexander Afanasyev. I can't resist a good folklore collection and this one is a peach. Russian folk tales have had a moment here in the last few years with lots appearing in translation and a couple of very successful fantasy books based on them. This is a thoroughly enjoyable translation that I keep going back to. 

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - Simon Armitage. Christmas and January are a busy time in my line of work, there's very little time off, and it all flies by. I had meant to read another translation of this in its proper season this year, but haven't yet. The joy of just how accessible and funny I found Armitage's version to be has sat with me all year though. The best thing bout books is how they'll patiently wait for you to discover them when the time is right.

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Murder After Christmas - Rupert Latimer

It's been a busy few weeks, not helped by my old washing machine finally giving up the ghost - the last time a plumber caught sight of it he couldn't believe anything that old still worked, so it did me well. A new one is coming on Thursday. I got the old machine in 2004 with the flat - it wasn't new - which makes it one of the more significant relationships I've had in my life, John Lewis are doubtful its replacement will be as faithful or long lived. At least they were honest about it. 

That and a hundred other small jobs, plus decent progress on the out-of-season Christmas stocking I'm knitting have meant limited reading, and even when I have been reading it's been a case of dipping in and out of several books and not finishing anything. I need to do something about that as a lot of good stuff has come through the door recently.

It's a while since I finished 'Murder After Christmas' and its proper season has passed by now, but it might be a good one to have waiting for next year so here we go. It's an interesting, and almost impenetrable plot full of the most ridiculous twists and red herrings. I think this is a book you will either really enjoy or really dislike. I really enjoyed it, helped a little by reading it early enough in January for the anarchic spirit of Christmas and pantomime to still appeal. 

Pantomime is very much the spirit of the book - plenty of farce and something a bit darker underneath that kept unsettling me whilst I read, it put me in mind of Monty Python too. I found the shenanigans funny, especially an unexplained set of mince pies sewn into the upholstery of a chair - and that's probably the yardstick to go by. If that sounds intriguing you'll enjoy this book. If it doesn't, approach with caution. 

Warnings duly given, I do think this is a book worth picking up though. Latimer's humour was impossible for me to resist after the first few pages. I really enjoyed his eccentric characters, all of whom were hard to like, but even harder to hate. The things they did might not make much sense in the cold light of day or regarded with any common sense, but it was more than possible to sympathise with them, even whilst being slightly horrified. 

Rupert Latimer was a pen name for Algernon Vernon Mills who turns out to be a bit of a mystery figure in his own right. The relatively scant biographical information on him in the introduction took some serious detective work from the British Library team to uncover and reveals a not entirely happy life then an earlyish death. I'm really glad that this book at least has been rediscovered and sorry that he didn't write a good few more.  

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Work Environments

I meant to finish off my top ten books of 2021 list tonight, but I've been thinking a lot about the murder of Ashling Murphy and some conversations that it led to over the weekend. It's made me wonder about other people's workplace experience so here I am.

I currently work in an all-female team in a bookshop where the customer ratio is fairly even but possibly just tips towards a female majority too. This is somewhat different from the twenty years I spent in the wine trade where I was always in a minority.

The last time I worked in an all-women team was in the late 1990s when I spent a year as a cook in a nursery. It wasn't a happy experience, I replaced one of two men who had been there, the other one was forced out by a frankly hostile atmosphere, and there were always cliques of people at odds with each other. 

After that I worked with a borderline crazy woman in a bookshop who kept telling me that she had a special power; people she disliked died - accompanied by a long stare. She loathed me, I'm still here, but the last time I saw her she was so intent on not making eye contact she walked into a lamp post which I like to think was karma. 

In Oddbins and other wine shops, I got used to being very much part of a minority, albeit a significant one, and being part of quite a macho culture (although that's a description that would surprise a lot of my former colleagues). When I recruited staff it was also mostly, though by no means exclusively men. More applied which made it easier to find people who would fit into the team we had. I still remember being somewhat shocked when I had a rugby-playing Christmas temp described to me by another woman as 'a treat' I'd hired myself. 

He was a treat for all of us in that he was a nice guy who never complained about the heavy lifting the job involved and could effortlessly reach things from the top shelves, but that's not how the comment was meant. Since then I've come across all sorts of toxic behaviour from both men and women, and given the choice would always opt for an as close to evenly mixed workplace as possible, so it's surprising to me how pleasant it is to work just with women right now. 

It's refreshing not hearing the vaguely inappropriate jokes and comments, not having to pick people up on them (and be considered a humourless bitch in the process). Good to be part of a team that likes and respects each other - this is lucky, not gender-related) and freeing not to have to police conversation so that it doesn't make male colleagues uncomfortable. We don't sit around talking about periods all day, but occasionally it's a relief to be able to say you feel like crap and know you'll get a mildly sympathetic response. 

Our romance buying (predominantly women) customers are much more comfortable talking about their book choices with other women too, confident that they won't be sneered at, or thought to be inviting unwanted attention when they mention the smut content. There's something quite depressing about this, which brings me back to Ashling Murphy - a teacher and folk musician who was minding her own business on a run in daylight when she was murdered. 

There seems to be a gap in communication that's really damaging. We all need to be better at making our workplaces work for everybody, part of which is a more general comfort for women around talking about issues that specifically affect us. I don't really have a conclusion here, more a general interest in what other people's experience has been and where/how to find the happy medium that's genuinely inclusive. 

Monday, January 17, 2022

Back from the Borders

I've been up to the Scottish borders for a bit of wedding research and a family catch-up - not something I take for granted in current times. Due to where we all live it's not especially easy to see Shetland or Inverness family at any time, and really hard over the last two years of restrictions to get out of Leicester (there were a couple of glorious escapes). I don't regret sacrificing that time, it was the right thing to do, but right at the moment, the people who didn't bother to follow either the spirit or the letter of the law are really pissing me off.

My friends and family missed funerals, canceled weddings, in some cases are still dealing with long covid, worried about jobs, worried about everybody they loved, and now we're all trying to adjust back to a world where some people take precautions seriously, and others think it's fine to wander around with a heavy cold (we hope) and cough all over you without wearing masks. In return for what we all went through, and in some respect for the hundreds of thousands who died or have to live with long-term health problems, we deserve much better from those who are meant to be leading us.

Anyway, in much happier news after 3 hours of driving through freezing fog on Saturday the sun came out somewhere near Durham, and the last 2 days have provided perfect winter weather, sunny, frosty, a full moon, and generally glorious. Dad has had a curlew weather vane made which we're all extremely impressed with. It was made by Nate ( see more of his work Here ). We're generally agreed that his price was pretty reasonable (not precisely cheap, but very good value) so if you're looking for something really special and bespoke he might be worth a look. 

We also had fun in Hawick, a town which finally looks like it might be about to see better times again. We went to the Borders distillery - very smart, and the Kerr's gin is one of the best I've had. We didn't go on a tour this time but might book one when we're next up. the smell coming from the distillery was amazing. I did get a long coveted blanket from the Lovet mill. It's cheaper to wrap myself up in a lambswool and silk blend than it is to put on another heater at the moment. 

Whilst I'm at it, I'm also going to give a shout out to Their Nibs pyjamas. I bought a couple of pairs before Christmas - they arrive by post very promptly, and I really like them. They size large, the ones I bought are a lightweight cotton which washes well and is comfortable to wear, and I love the patterns which are the right type of quirky for me. They also have pockets. My family are uniformly unimpressed by my suggestion we could all have matching wedding party pyjamas, I might do it just to prove them wrong. 

Tuesday, January 11, 2022


The closest thing I've made to New Year's resolutions this year is to promptly read some of the books I got for Christmas, and not to buy any more books until I've read a good amount of the ones I already have. The number of unread books has become oppressive again, but I'm making good progress. An actual ban wouldn't work for me, but reminding myself of the current chaos of home, and the expectation of a few review copies has made it easy to exercise some restraint.

I've also started knitting again - I stopped for a few weeks after finishing my jumper and tried to work out what to make next. I have plans for another jumper, but first I'm enjoying knitting a couple of socks that are destined to be Christmas stockings. I meant to make these last year but failed to find the time - I'm using Alison Rendall's Stoorbra socks pattern but on larger needles and with DK rather than jumper weight yarn. So far I'm really happy with the results - and actually doing a bit of stash busting too which also feels really good.

Meanwhile, I'm still eating my way through Christmas cake, panettone, and eyeing the biggest Toblerone I've ever seen (thanks mum) which is all going nicely with tea, and my current book choice - Adrian Bell's 'A Countryman's Notebook' (also, thank you mum) from Slightly Foxed. 

I was dogsitting at the weekend and found a very appropriate quote about rough weather; "No weather, of course, is bad weather on a Sunday - for those on terra firma. You can enjoy going out if you are not obliged to."

The dog would doubtless take a different view of my obligations, and as it happened Sunday was fairly glorious, if cold and very muddy - but it gave us a 6 mile wander that we both thoroughly enjoyed. Having the time and opportunity to do it was a real treat. 

Friday, January 7, 2022

A Crime Adaptation Wishlist

After reading 'Murder on a Winter's Night', just finishing 'Murder After Christmas' from the British Library Crime Classics series, and reading Cross Examining Crimes new years day post I've been thinking about things I'd really like to see on television instead of another version of an Agatha Christie (much as I love Agatha Christie). 

I'd also like to take a moment to wonder (not for the first time) why on earth the brilliant Dorothy L. Sayers adaptations with Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter from the late 1980s (1987?) were never repeated and are so hard to find to watch now. I honestly can't imagine better casting for Lord Peter and Harriet than that pair, no remake is needed. There was a brilliant adaptation of Josephine Tey's 'The Franchise Affair' from around the same time which I've never seen since too. 

Josephine Pullein-Thompson's 'Gin and Murder' might not be the best mystery, but it does a lot of other things really well. I'd watch this for the late 50s glamour of the county set and the emotional situation Pullein-Thompson underpins her story with which packs a genuine punch.

It's not necessarily the best mysteries which would make the best viewing, and there's a double truth with that when it comes to Georgette Heyer - her crime novels are generally considered as sort of second-best compared to her romances. I have mixed feelings about this, I think the mysteries are mostly under-rated, but I'm also less attached to them and think there's less chance that anybody filming them would annoy every Heyer fan ever by producing something we would all hate. 'Behold, Here's Poison' is pleasingly twisty, would provide some lovely sets and costumes, and be an excellent opportunity to unleash one of Heyer's queer coded characters on the public.

The British Library has released a couple of Margot Bennett titles, and both have a pleasingly visual element to them which makes me think they'd be great on screen. I've gone with 'The Man Who Didn't Fly' because it came to hand first. I enjoyed reading this, but I'd really love to watch it.

It's possible that there have been adaptations of Gypsy Rose Lee's books - I'm half afraid to look. She wrote 2 murder mysteries and they are brilliant. 'The G-String Murders' and 'Mother Finds a Body' are both worth seeking out - they're affordable on kindle, but out of print and expensive in paper. Who doesn't want to watch murders against a background of 1940's burlesque with brilliant noir wisecracks and one-liners?

To be honest, I'd happily watch a good adaptation of almost all of the British Library Crime Classics series - there's a lot of good stuff in there to choose from. I've picked on 'The Chianti Flask' by Marie Belloc Lowndes because the characters and their moral dilemmas are so richly drawn. The murder part is almost incidental compared to the character studies and a good cast could have a ball with this.

I'd just like to see Vera Caspary get a revival. 'Laura' is a great novel and one of the great film noirs, she also worked on Hollywood classics like Fritz Lang's 'The Blue Gardenia'. I adored the high camp of 'Bedelia' but think 'The Man Who Loved His Wife' would be great on screen. It's twisty with plenty of suspense, and again, characters you can really get your teeth into. 

Micheal Gilbert has been one of my favourite discoveries from the British Library series. He's really good, and 'Death has Deep Roots' is a book I regularly recommend at work. I like the way the action shifts between wartime France and post-war London and the thoughtful plot. If you like classic crime at all Gilbert is worth seeking out. 

Margaret Miller is another happy find, mostly due to Pushkin's Vertigo series. I'd like to see more of her work back in print and again would very much enjoy watching her work. 'Vanish in an Instant' is full of atmosphere and seedy characters - perfect. 

Carol Carnac's 'Crossed Skis' is a fun alpine mystery written in 1952 when Britain, and Europe were still distinctly post-war. Stuck in a grey, Omicron shadowed, midlands January the idea of escaping to the alps is desperately appealing even if I don't ski. After decades of taking travel opportunities somewhat for granted the difficulties of crossing Europe in the 1950s have taken on a new resonance since 2020. This mystery where a largish party of relative strangers (lots of friends of friends) has accumulated and then realise one of their number isn't what they claim - but which one - could provide the perfect mix of escapism and suspense.

Finally, it's about time the increasingly ridiculous Father Brown was canned, and John Dickson Carr gets a look in. I've chosen The Case of the Constant Suicides' only because it was the first one I read. Carr does over the top drama brilliantly, would provide lots of excellent new characters, and keep anybody (me) who likes to watch utter nonsense as long as it's entertaining very happy indeed. I principally love Carr for the gothic flourishes and appreciate that these aren't everybody's cup of tea, but not everything needs to be serious, and the set designs would be something to marvel at in a good Carr adaptation.

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Murder on a Winter's Night - edited by Cecily Gayford

It's 12th night, I've finally started my Christmas, now rechristened as twelfth, cake and am cheerfully reading murder mysteries. The Profile published Christmas collection has been a staple stocking gift (still do them, never intend to stop) for the last few years now, and whilst they're always decent, I have sometimes found the quality variable.

Not so with this year's offering, 'Murder on a Winter's Night' is my idea of the perfect anthology. It's anchored by an almost novella-length Dorothy L Sayer's story (The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention) which I only remembered reading before about two-thirds of the way through, and even then couldn't remember the details, so it felt new and after that, there's an excellent mix of short and medium-length offerings. 

There's a good balance between stories that are amusing to the point of funny with a couple that remind you that murder isn't a joke (never a bad thing) and a nearly contemporary entry to balance all the classic crime. I even like that it's called 'Murder in a Winter's Night' so that I'm not left feeling like I'm clinging to the old year now that January is well underway. 

Basically, I enjoyed everything about this particularly well curated collection, it's definitely one to look out for if you enjoy classic crime. I don't want to give spoilers for particular stories, but it would be just the thing to have to hand if the threatened snow turns up this weekend. 

Sunday, January 2, 2022

At Christmas We Feast - Annie Gray

Looking at Facebook memories from a couple of years ago I see, with quite a lot of guilt, that so far I've only read one of the books I got for Christmas in 2019. I'm already doing better than that with this year's lot having raced through a crime collection and read most of 'At Christmas We Feast' in odd bursts over the last week. 

This is, in many ways the perfect post-Christmas book - and it's not too late to buy a copy to enjoy before 12th night puts the season to bed for another year. As I haven't started my Christmas cake yet I've officially re-designated it as a 12th cake and will give it due consideration on Wednesday, by which time the mince pies will be finished. Part of what I love about this book, and loved about Anja Dunk's 'Advent' is that both of them help re-extend the Christmas season back into something that makes more sense.

There are lots of things about modern life I could complain about; when, for example, did it become acceptable to bring food and drink into shops? Keep your greasy hands and sticky drinks away from my stock thank you very much, and definitely keep your red velvet latte's away from our carpet - nobody has actually been murdered in our shop, but it certainly looks like they have been now. One of the most fundamental though is the work-life balance we currently accept, our aversion to being a little bit bored, and there really not being enough slack time built into the working year. 

The pace we set ourselves is stupid, especially around Christmas where anticipation starts to build in earnest from Halloween, all for what used to be a 12 or more day series of festivals to be squashed into 48 hours if we're lucky. It's emotionally and physically exhausting, especially if you work in a service industry (I can't imagine a time in the year when working for the emergency services isn't both of those things, so right now I'm mostly thinking of the people in pubs, shops, restaurants, and all the other venues we turn up at demanding entertainment and bargains from at this time of year).

Stretch the celebrations over advent or consider the old feast days and you get time to enjoy and maybe more crucially, digest, all the good things to eat and drink that the season brings. 'At Christmas We Feast' is a tour through centuries of Christmas food traditions which show what's changed, what we've kept, maybe some things we'd like to adapt and adopt, has a smattering of recipes and is generally full of interesting tidbits.

I have tried the wine chocolate recipe from page 49 - or at least cobbled together an approximation of it using some leftover wine, brandy, and sugar in place of port, which I do not have open. Next time I have a leftover glass of wine, or open port, I'm going to try it again omitting the rice flour as a thickener. I like the flavour and kick of it, but don't need the cream-like consistency. I do feel that with a bit of tinkering this might be a great mulled wine alternative and all-around winter favourite.