Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Guards! Guards! - Terry Pratchett

The read books are beginning to stack up on my desk, but the time to write about them is proving hard to come by. The last week has been big on damsons and dog sitting. My workmate bought me the last of the fruit from her tree - she is an absolute star for this, they're really lovely fruit and now I've got 2 kinds of damson jelly and a damson and vanilla jam. I am sharing this with her.

My mother's dog just considers everything that doesn't revolve around her is a waste of my time. I'd say that she's not wrong but this goes up to and includes sleeping - she thinks we ought to be up and walking by 5.30 so when I was still in bed at 5.45 she was very vocally put out. The combination of dog and mother is still the best way to put a hard week behind me that it's worth the early starts. It's even worth the general impression that the dog gives that one of them needs to keep me in sight at all times in case I go off with the spoons or something. 

I started reading Guards! Guards! immediately after Equal Rites and then stalled halfway through - a reminder of why I stopped reading Pratchett altogether back in the day. The book was fine I just got bored with the joke and had to make myself finish it. I might not have bothered but that I wanted to exorcise the horror that was the BBC adaptation a couple of years ago. 

In the end I'm glad I carried on. I have happy memories of reading Pratchett through some difficult times. He was a warm and funny guide to some of the complications of the adult world that I was beginning to negotiate in my late teens and if my reading taste has changed considerably since then, the essential decency of Pratchett is still a constant.

None of my younger colleagues at work have read him, so I'm going to try and persuade them to have a go - they're around what I consider to be the right age to discover him (early 20's,  younger would be a bit better). I have found that I really enjoy listening to Pratchett via audio books, more of which in my next post, so I'm not just trying to palm off unwanted review copies onto them. It's very much that I want to see what they think of him. 

When I first read these books it was in a recession, the one that saw Leicester lose great swathes of its textile industry, and a time that seemed quite bleak (halcyon days by current standards). At times like this a writer who can make you laugh and maybe believe that things will sort of work out has to be a good thing. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Gallant - V. E. Schwab

I've set myself the goal of reading through a chunk of the books that have been hanging around for ages and that I'm not overly excited about (not necessarily the same thing) in the hopes of clearing some serious space before peak season brings lots of unmissable new books through the door. 

Quite a few of these are proofs from work picked up with the intention of widening my reading range so I can better recommend things. Honestly, it's a lot easier in the wine trade where you just have to taste something, a process that takes a couple of minutes including the time to make a more or less intelligent note about whatever you've just tried. 

It maybe doesn't help that I'm old enough to know my reading tastes fairly well, and also to have limited tolerance for what I consider bad or lazy writing. 'Gallant' didn't fall into either of the latter categories, and I've been curious to read Schwab for a while. When I actually got down to it though, this will likely be the only book of hers I ever read. 

The blurb promised that it's great for fans of Neil Gaiman, The Secret Garden, and Holly Black. I more or less like all of those things, but I rate Holly Black by far the highest on the list and Schwab was more at the Neil Gaiman end of the scale for me. I enjoy his storytelling but I haven't loved it since I was a teen reading The Sandman. If you wanted a dark fantasy that explores issues about family and belonging that mixes the gothic with the Secret Garden though, you'd definitely get what you paid for.

It's an easy book to read too, once I'd decided I'd finish it, it was easy to read 100 or so in what felt like no time at all (a little over an hour maybe?) and I got through it fast. Olivia, the main character is compelling, the story was sweet, but in the end, it made very little impact on my imagination. In part, this was because as intriguing as I found Olivia, nobody she interacted with really came off the page. Not her newfound friends, or foes, and the ending fell flat for me too, there just wasn't any depth to any of it.

On the other hand, there will be people who quite rightly love this book, but I think they might be younger readers. And this is something I find mildly annoying about how a lot of fantasy fiction is currently marketed - this book is about a 16 year old girl trying to find a family and a home - to me that's teen/young adult fiction. Schwab writes books that are marketed in both categories - this one goes into the adult section which I feel does it a disservice.

Or maybe our current classification system no longer adequately describes books - possibly science fiction and fantasy need to be split, certainly, a lot of the books that involve young women in fairytale or gothic settings having fairly chaste adventures seem like they should have their own category. Oh to have a bookshop of my own where I could get really granular about how things should be shelved.

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Jam Season

I don't know where the time is going right now. Between work, the Powder and Patch Readalong, trying to catch up on a backlog of reading, knitting, and all the other bits of life my days just disappear. I have finally got a small pile of read (instead of half-read) books sitting on my desk, but it's almost 8pm, I'd dearly love to spend the rest of the night knitting and watching The Sandman - but I've just finished simmering some damsons and apples ready for jelly making and have a couple of other kitchen jobs to tackle.

After that, I need to prep the next 3 read-along chapters because I'm at work all day tomorrow, and then I need to get to bed in good time to be woken up by the antisocial builders working on replacing cladding to the university halls of residence across the way. For reasons, they do something noisy to scaffolding every morning from around 7am. I know from days off that by about 10am it's nice and quiet again but it's too late to be useful. 

I'm not a morning person, and whilst I'm a big fan of flammable cladding being got rid of, I'd really like it if they started an hour later. The hour between 7 and 8am has never been a productive one for me - the best I can do is drink coffee and read newspaper headlines/Twitter trends. I'm really looking forward to term starting and the relative quiet of new neighbors. Say what you will about students, they're rarely a nuisance early in the day. Or at all these days outside of the excitement of freshers week. Students have genuinely made great neighbours for almost 18 years now. 

But back to my damsons - they came from a work colleague who was in no way prepared for how enthusiastic I would be about getting them, are beautifully, plumply, ripe and to my mind mark the beginning of autumn. Or perhaps more correctly the Shetland word, hairst which is more of a mix of autumn and harvest - appropriate for a place where August is very definitely the end of summer.

Apparently, we're currently having a 'false Autumn' with trees losing their leaves after the recent extreme heat, it's likely to be followed by a false spring with the possibility of finding more elderflowers (although I see a lot of dead elder trees about in this drought so maybe not) but one way or another August has always felt like the turn of the year to me and maybe this year more than most. It's a year since I got engaged, and found a new job, and the next year looks set to bring equally big changes - and how have I got this far from damsons?

I'm using Diana Henry's Damson and Juniper jelly recipe as a base, but ditching the juniper. She uses apples as well as Damsons, and it was a sign of the times that nowhere had Bramley apples for sale today, the ones I settled on (the ones on offer in Tesco, variety unclear) refused to really soften which is a pain but they'll make the damsons go a bit further anyway so it's fine. I'm going to split the juice between 2 jelly batches tomorrow - 1 will be plain, the other is going to be spiced with cinnamon, star anise, and possibly vanilla.

It's jelly rather than jam because fishing the stones out is such a nuisance and because the boil it strain it boil it approach is reassuring if you're at all squeamish about the possibility of bugs. I am. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

From The Abyss - D K Broster

For anyone who has been following the ups and downs at Waterstones it'll probably be fairly clear why I haven't got back to reading and posting as much as I'd like. It's been a challenging time on the shop floor and I'm both really tired and quite keen not to look at another book when I get home. I'm still loving the job, it's just very full on at the moment.

Even that couldn't put me off 'From the Abyss' once I started it though. Edited by Melissa Edmundson who proved she knew what she was doing from the first collection of Women's Weird from Handheld Press, this covers D. K. Broster's weird fiction from 1907 to 1945 and it's a treat. D K Broster was best known for her Jacobite trilogy written in the 1920s. I'm kicking myself a little here as I has a battered copy of 'The Flight of the Heron' unread for several years - and cleared it out still unread to a charity shop last summer. Never mind.

As it happens I have come across at least one Broster short story in another weird collection - 1933s Couching at the Door which is unsettling enough to be unforgettable. The really good thing about 'From the Abyss' is that the stories cover a long enough time period to show Broster's style thoroughly evolve. It always feels like reading the same woman, but with enough variety in tone to never be repetitive.

It also helps that Broster has an engaging sense of humour, especially for the tales that lean towards the decadent style, which honestly is most of them. I enjoy fin de siecle decadence quite possibly more than the next person (at least in this corner of Leicester) but a little can go a long way when you take it too seriously. 

Which brings me back to 'Couching at the Door' wherein a poet who has been published in the Yellow Book and is now enjoying a life of aesthetic luxury in the Cotswolds with occasional trips to Europe for cabalistic going on finds out the meaning of the thoroughly modern phrase 'fuck about and find out'. Aleister Crowley's effect on the English imagination has been something he's undoubtedly have reveled in. The thoroughly deserving poet's persecution starts in the form of something he takes to be a ball of fluff about the size of a spider, something that when he manages to be brave enough to pick it up to drown it flutters unpleasantly in his hand. 

The drawing fails, the thing continues to grow and pursue him, it's terror lies mostly in its movements, and our collective memories of that feeling of an insect in the hand, and maybe the deeper terror of putting a hand out to flip a light switch and finding another already there. 

The Pestering (brilliant title) works in a similar way - a persistent spirit who makes his victims supremely uncomfortable. 'The Promised Land' was maybe my favourite - it flips from darkly funny, to plain dark in a moment and is haunting for completely different reasons to most of the other stories - with the possible exception of 'The Juggernaut' which has the same blend of comedy suddenly switching to a bleak kind of tragedy. 

The title story, 'From the Abyss' cleverly takes an idea that is on the surface appealing - I won't detail this because it's a massive spoiler, and again imbues it with a subtle terror. Altogether it's a really strong collection that consistently managed to subvert my expectations. The bad things that happen are rooted in a sort of domestic banality set against gorgeously artistic backgrounds. It's a tremendously effective device and a book I'll turn to again and again. Big thanks to Handheld press for this review copy. 

Friday, August 5, 2022

Undefeated - The Muckle Ayre Stole

I started this stole more than 2 years ago, in the first 2020 lockdown. I battled with it for months and kind of grew to hate it. At the time it was the most complicated lace pattern I'd ever tried, and it was possibly just a little beyond me. It's still the most complicated lace pattern I've ever tried but I'm a slightly better knitter now and I've just knitted 10 rows without any obvious mistakes so keep your fingers crossed for me.

Two years in a project bag hidden under my bed hasn't done the stole any apparent harm, and it seems blessedly moth damage free (unexpected holes really would mean tears). Two years break from swearing at it has also reignited some of my enthusiasm for the pattern - I wonder if that'll survive trying to dress it (or if that day will ever even come)? 

Lace is hard work, it calls for a degree of concentration that fair isle patterns do not despite how complicated they can look. At least with colour work, you can see where you've gone wrong and rip back easily enough. Because the Muckle Ayre has no plain knit rows and a lot of yarn overs and knitting together of stitches going back is really hard. 

When I started this it was the first time I'd used lifelines, and the first time that I discovered they didn't necessarily work. The theory is that you can rip back to the lifeline, where you know all your stitches were correct, and start again from there. I did it a couple of times only to discover there weren't the right number of stitches left on the needle. There was swearing. Now I'm still using them almost entirely to be able to see how many repeats I've done. 

Still, after a couple of months hiatus from knitting (mostly heat related), a bit more progress on this beast of a project felt like a good place to start again. I haven't bought any yarn this year, which has made no noticeable difference to my stash at all - busting some of it will definitely be a winter project/ambition. This was my only wip, making progress on it feels almost symbolic of a wider ambition to clear the decks (the books really need attention). It's also a measure of how badly this project got under my skin last time. that even two plus years down the line I remembered I was 8 rows into the repeat. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Best Days With Shetland Birds - ed Andrew Harrop & Rebecca Mason

I'm currently reading several books at once for various reasons, and so far have lost the only one I've actually finished. It won't be far away, but it will be well camouflaged. Never mind. One of the books is Georgette Heyer's Powder and Patch which is the current #ReadingHeyer title - and this time I'm hosting the discussion on Twitter. We only started on Sunday and if anybody would like to join in please do. The hashtag will find us.

I bought 'Best Days With Shetland Birds' direct from The Shetland Times Bookshop, because it has a Howard Towll illustration on the cover (see his Instagram here) and I am a fan. I kind of assumed there might be more Howard in the book, and maybe some of Paul Bloomer's pictures as well as his words - wrong on both counts but in the end it didn't matter. I absolutely fell in love with this odd little book - it's easily the most delightful thing I've read this year. 

I was a reasonably enthusiastic bird watcher growing up in Shetland and continue to enjoy the birdlife when I was back there, but it wasn't a hobby that survived moving to the city until lockdown made it possible to really go out and see what was on my doorstep. It helps that peregrines, egrets, and the occasional red kite have colonised these parts, but even the peregrines do not punctuate the Leicester skyline in the way that gannets, terns, and bonxies define a Shetland summer. 

Best Days With Shetland Birds is odd because it's hard to classify. It's a collection of memories from dozens of people of the best bird days they remember. Some celebrate particular rarities, others great days with lots of good spots, there are celebrations of particular birding patches, and of some less glamorous sightings - the overall theme is enthusiasm and a sense of community. The weather might be awful, the birds reluctant to show themselves, car keys lost, but eventually each day delivers. In the process friendships between the birding community come to the fore as does a sense of what an amazing place Shetland is for bird watching.

My interest is the very mild sort, my expertise at identifying birds is basically non-existent once you get away from the really obvious species, and I'm probably not going to spend time learning which warbler is which but the appeal here is also in the number of birds listed that even I could spot. That's part of the magic of Shetland; find somewhere comfortable in a likely spot and you'll see all sorts of things. My favourite would be gannets diving for food seen from a likely spot on the shore, or listening to snipe drum overhead and trying to spot them on a summer's evening. Basically this book is an absolute gem if you have even the most passing interest in bird watching and you should definitely buy it!