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.