Sunday, October 30, 2022

Ghost stories and missing the 1929 club

It has been a long week at work (our Sundays count as the start of the week which is a common but weird retail thing, so I feel like I've worked six days this week - because I have, with a late finish tonight to try and get some Christmas prep in). I had hoped to read E. F. Benson's 'Paying Guests' for Simon and Kaggsy's 1929 book club, b ut it didn't happen. 

That was partly because I've also been reading two really excellent collections of weird\ghost stories which I was disinclined to put aside. The first was Helen Simoson's The Outcast and The Rite which covered stories dating from 1925 - 1938, the other The Little Blue Flames and other Uncanny Tales by A. M. Burrage which again covers the 1920s -30s.

I haven't looked up the specific dates for any of the stories included but some of them must have come from 1929 and overall the mood of both books speaks of the era. The Great War may be a decade or more in the past but its shadows are still being cast. Simpson and Burrage are distinctly different writers and I didn't choose to read these books side by side for any similarities I assumed I might find but it's there in the sense of loss, of crumbling certainties, of people living by their wits and class barriers breaking down.

Houses become malevolent, or anachronisms that must exert their charm to survive - much like those who would inhabit them, and as Burrage points out in one story there's a pervasive superstition born in the war that still had its claws in the popular imagination. It's not unusual to find plots in detective fiction from the 20s and 30s which revolve around witchcraft or devil worship - they mostly prove to be a front for something else, but there's a readiness for the characters in these books to believe - something. Anything perhaps that helped make sense of the war they'd been through and the destruction it bough, as well as the sometimes miricle-like fact of survival. 

It's hard to look around at the moment and not see parallels with the uncertainties and upheavals of the 1920s - perhaps this winter will bring out some future tales of the weird - I don't read enough contemporary fiction to know if there's a pervasive mood beyond a thirst for paranormal smut amongst young adults (and that's because I sell so much of it at work).

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

The Outcast and the Rite - Helen de Guerry Simpson

I'm very late reading this - I had meant to review it in time for its release date but getting married and getting covid intervened. I took it away with me to Scotland (it's been back and forth to my mother's a few times this summer as well, but the dog had other ideas about how we could spend our time, which mostly involved walking around fields) but as ever packed far more books than I could read and didn't get to it. 

This October has been a godsend for catching up on anything remotely spooky, weird, or unheimlich though, and so I've finally got down to it, found a couple of stories I knew and loved from other anthologies, and really fallen for Helen de Guerry Simpson in the process. 

The subtitle here is Stories of Landscape and Fear, 1925 -1938, but these are not ghost stories - or at least if one or two of them are, on the whole the collection leans much more towards unsettling than anything else. Even then it's not in a seriously scary way, although there are moments of recognition that may well come back to haunt me. 

Maybe my favourite story is 'Disturbing Experience of an Elderly Lady' which I had read before. Mrs. Jones has been left a wealthy widow who decides to use her newly acquired money to buy a stately home once glimpsed from a charabanc window. Its dignity had made her feel small, and now she's determined to destroy it. The house is just as set on saving itself, which it aims to do by charming Mrs. Jones into submission. What follows is a gently humorous battle of wills that reaches a tipping point in one of those moments of recognition.

As Much More Land adheres more closely to the traditional ghost story - and reminds me a little of Saki. It quietly lulled me into a sense of all being well and then had a deft little twist at the end which was definitely unsettling. And so it goes on. these are not stories to outright scare the reader, rather they're designed to make us think, or remember the times the sky has seemed too big over the landscape, the night too dark, the woods too overgrown and rank for comfort. 

Or there's Good Company which takes a lone and complacent traveler and then places her in exactly the sort of danger women fear and so often encounter. Again it's the moment of recognition that adds the fear - the all to familiar feeling of vulnerability at the hands of someone physically stronger than yourself. 

This is a great collection of stories from a writer who really ought to be better known. The next time I read them it'll be in the light of a long northern summer's evening which is a different type of spooky to the short nights of autumn winter - and to which I think her mood is better suited. It's something to do with her humour and the subtle way she mixes all the elements of her work. But honestly, buy this book - it's something special to add to any weird collection. 

Find the book here - Handheld Press

Sunday, October 23, 2022

The Leviathan - Rosie Andrews

It's been a busy week at work (that's only going to get intensify over the next couple of months) with some mixed news in it, but we went to Stamford yesterday which was as charming as ever (very beautiful in a particularly English way, obviously a lot of money around which is reassuring given how depressed Leicester is and bustling on a Saturday with lots of excellent cafes to visit). Today I've made Christmas pudding and started a Christmas Schnapps and a quince liqueur. I have my doubts about the quince concoction. My track record with anything quince-based other than jelly is not great - but we'll see.

I've also had the annual lecture from dad about keeping Christmas for December - he hates it, but likes the cake and the puddings, and knows perfectly well that they don't appear without some kind of effort. Even if they didn't need time to mature this is my window for making before work really does get too crazy to have the energy for it, so I plan on enjoying this bit whilst I can.

Reading wise I've finally finished Rosie Andrews' debut 'The Leviathan' which I got as a proof back in January. At the time I'd read one historic novel too many and didn't make much progress with this one, but it is a perfect Autumn into Winter book. Most of the action takes place in a bleak Norfolk January against the backdrop of the English civil war, though it occasionally skips forward to 1703 where the elderly protagonist is retelling the events of his youth. 

The dark nights, lashing winds, rain, and snow that Rosie describes are probably the thing I liked most about this book - the weather is very much part of the character of the book and a foreshadowing of what's awoken. More than that though I felt like I could almost smell the snow on the wind and feel the cold whilst I was reading and from that everything else fell into place. 

Thomas is returning home, injured in action, and has just missed Christmas day in his puritan household. He's troubled by a letter from his younger sister which is making some fairly wild accusations against one of the servants, and more troubled when he arrives home to find his horse increasingly uneasy, the sheep dead in the field, and his father struck down with a stroke. He's also very aware that his sister's accusations could bring suspicion back to their own door so his first priority is to protect her. 

He's initially sceptical, has lost his faith in god, and considers witchcraft to be superstitious nonsense, but things get stranger, something is undoubtedly amiss and then the poet John Milton gets involved, when I read the blurb I wasn't sure how this would work, but it's done well. His presence serves mostly to remind us of 17th-century ideas and ideals - a world that hadn't yet been entirely mapped.

Altogether this is a tense and atmospheric book with big ideas that come off well. It also made me want to actually read Milton and Hobbes which is a feat in itself. Highly recommended. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Carmen Callil

I'm genuinely sad to hear about the death of Carmen Callil yesterday, Virago, the publishing house she founded changed how I saw the world, as I know it did for many women of my generation. I can't show you a picture of the 400 or so Virago Modern Classics I own because they live on a set of shelves that's impossible to get a decent picture of, and because there are a lot of jars of quince jelly and damson jam in front of them at the moment - but they're there and although I've told this story here before I'm going to share it again because what Carmen did really mattered.

When I was a very young woman there was very little sense of a canon of women writers. We had Jane Austen (love her), assorted Bronte's (hit and miss) and Virginia Woolf (frankly ambivalent). A.S. Byatt had won the Booker prize, the queens of crime and Georgette Heyer were familiar, and there were the great 80's bonkbusters to enjoy but there were considerable gaps. I knew from Heyer that Austen had had contemporaries but in that pre-internet age I didn't know much more.

And then I got into an argument with an especially smug fellow student on my history degree. It ended with him asking if I could name 10 famous female writers from history. Of course, I could not. So later that day I went to a bookshop and started looking for women to read. I found Molly Keane in a distinctive green jacket, I bought a book and loved it. 

When I'd worked through Molly I found Sara Maitland (Women Fly When Men Aren't Watching) which I loved so much I photocopied individual stories from to send to friends (probably breaking copyright laws in the process). From there I found Rosamund Lehmann, Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, Mrs. Oliphant, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Elizabeth Taylor, Susan Ferrier, Mae West, Elizabeth Jenkins, Barbara Comyns, Rachel Ferguson, Fanny Burney, and then more and more and more - a whole history. 

For years I'd scour bookshops for those green covers. I went on day trips to anywhere within a 40 mile radius with my best friend to find second-hand copies of by then out of print Virago's giving ourselves endless good memories in the process. We both built up decent collections, found online friends who shared our enthusiasm, and most importantly found versions of ourselves, our mothers, and our grandmothers in those books. 

Meanwhile, Persephone came along, and so did a host of other independent presses that found more women writers. Women got further into the Penguin and Oxford classics ranges, and now I could name any number of writers from any number of countries or cultures to that idiot from my first year at university. 

I suppose if Carmen Callil hadn't done it somebody else eventually would have - but she got there first and changed things for all of us which is some kind of legacy.

As a footnote she was a guest on a couple of episodes of the Backlisted Podcast which I highly recommend listening too. 

Sunday, October 16, 2022

Once Upon A Tome - Oliver Darkshire

A book that very loosely fits into my thematic October reading. Once Upon A Tome is one of those books that appear in the run-up to Christmas, destined to be the handy stocking filler for the book lovers and such like in your life. It'll be a good choice if you do buy it, funny and irreverent, not at all heavy going - exactly the sort of book to fill the days off (for those lucky enough to get them) between Christmas and New Year. 

Oliver Darkshire joined antiquarian booksellers Henry Southeran about 8 years ago as an apprentice, one of the roles he took on was their social media\twitter account - and made such a success of it that he ended up expanding the Twitter persona into a book which isn't quite fact or fiction, but is filled with an entirely genuine affection and respect for his co-workers. 

For me, it's that affection that makes the book work. Darkshire is undoubtedly funny and tells a decent story but his appreciation for the people who took a chance on what by his own description, wasn't a particularly promising young man and found him a niche he could thrive in - that's special. 

There's something of an insight into the rare book trade, though not masses of detail if you happened to be looking for hot tips. There's not much more insight into the world of Henry Southeran's either - too much has been changed - to protect the guilty I suspect, but there's a charming general impression. 

Things I learned; in high-end bookshops, you don't always have to be polite to customers. I wish this were the case on the high street because some people really need telling. Do not trust an apprentice with gourds. Never visit a client's house (to be honest this is a rule anyway, but fortunately it's not part of my current job). Appreciate your co-workers, and give them credit when it's due (always). Avoid dark cellars. Pay some heed to health and safety. Do not let books get damp. Never encourage customers.

If bookshops are your happy place you'll probably enjoy this book a lot - I really did and had to retrieve it from Doug a couple of times so that I could finish it. He kept trying to pinch it when I wasn't looking but was given away by laughing out loud each time he got a couple pf paragraphs in. 

Thursday, October 13, 2022

Sally Jones and the False Rose - Jakob Wegelius

'Sally Jones and the False Rose' is the second outing for gorilla and ships engineer Sally Jones, but the first one that I've read. The reason I picked this one up was the mention of Shetland on the back cover - which was slightly misleading, but not disappointingly so (I was specifically looking for a Shetland-related children's book at the time and it sort of ticks that box). 

A couple of years ago I bought the first Sally Jones for my godson, thinking it sounded like a good bet for a young boy - murder, gorillas and boats all sounded okay to me. I forgot to ask him what he thought of it, but I've really enjoyed this outing for a couple of reasons, one of them being that the cover and storyline stand out from a lot of the 9-12 age range books I see, and that's something of a relief. Making the main protagonist a gorilla is a great idea, Sally transcends ideas about age and gender - she's loyal and kind, a skilled engineer who quickly makes friends in the adult world she inhabits, but she's also an outsider as a child might be.

She can read and write, but not speak, and she's smart but vulnerable without the chief at her side - it's not easy for a lone gorilla to make her way in the world without ending up in a zoo, as somebody's pet, or as is occasionally threatened - carved into steaks for an upscale restaurant. It's a setup that gives plenty of scope for Wegelius to explore some issues in a delicate way. We know Sally is as much of a person as we are, she's our narrator after all, but she's very much at the mercy of those around her.

Bad luck for Sally then, when after finding a priceless pearl necklace hidden aboard their Clyde puffer, The Hudson Queen, her and the Chief's efforts to find its rightful owner take them to Glasgow where Sally falls into the clutches of some extremely nasty gangsters, becoming the hostage that forces the chief to take contraband whisky to prohibition America. The pearls pass through various hands, hotly pursued by the gang leader, Moira, who feels like she has an entirely immoral claim to them. 

Sally meanwhile is trying to make the best of her truly awful situation, make friends, and somehow avoid Glasgow becoming embroiled in all-out gang warfare as mafia types move in and the riverside gangs make their own bid for power. The whole thing is set against a convincingly miserable Scottish winter, the stakes are high, and the action barrels along at a wicked pace.

The Shetland connection comes in the form of the mysterious 'Shetland Jack'. Pearl fisherman, dodgy character, and figure of mystery. I loved this book because the peril always seemed real, the ending is satisfying, Sally is an easy character to love, there's a ton of atmosphere, great illustrations, and overall because Sally's choices are genuinely difficult. Good prevails in the end, but sometimes I wondered how we'd get there (the answer is mostly in Sally's innate kindness and gift for friendship). A great book for readers of all ages!

Friday, October 7, 2022

Spice/a Cook's Companion - Mark Diacono

In a change from the weird, it's time to embrace the other thing that autumn is big on  - new cookbooks. I've bought so many and have so many more on my wish list for as and when they appear that I actually had a serious purge the other day and got rid of roughly a dozen older titles that I simply don't use. 

I used to hate doing this, but somewhere along the line the numbers have become a little overwhelming and so much like with clothes, if I haven't worn it, or cooked from it, in a couple of years, never turn to it for inspiration, and don't feel whatever buzz was there when I first bought it - it goes. It's generally a relief to clear the decks a little and be better able to see what I've got. Maybe one day I'll lose the desire to constantly acquire new cookbooks, but however handy (and economical) that would be I can't imagine it happening anytime soon. Not whilst how people write about food keeps evolving,

Spice is the third in what I guess is a series of books by Diacono, with Herbs and Sour being the other two. They're all great, and what I particularly love about 'Spice' is that although Mark clearly doesn't share my aversion to chilies, spice in this book doesn't just mean hot. If hot is your thing, don't worry though, there's no shortage of that either.

It's easy to take the supermarket spice rack for granted - even in our post-Brexit world of gaps we don't really mention, the everyday availability of once-rare commodities is ever-growing, spreading from the internet to high-end deli's down to Waitrose and into every supermarket thereafter. It came as a shock to me after Leicester with its plethora of international supermarkets that I couldn't buy Pul Bibir off the shelf in the Scottish Borders...

The magic of spices is their ability, combined just so, to evoke whole cuisines, and then reconfigured to conjure somewhere altogether different. Or just to transform a base ingredient into something new so that a glut of something doesn't have to stay a glut of the same thing - there's a world of difference between the damson and cinnamon jelly I made and the damson and vanilla jam. 

What 'Spice' will give me is a lot more inspiration. the mincemeat recipe is intriguingly different from the one I normally make, the recipe for quince ratafia is timely (I don't have lemon verbena because I don't have a garden, but I might be able to get some), and there are some takes on egg nog that sound amazing. There are pickles, and breads, and sauces, and more. 

It's also worth saying, as I have with every one of his books, Mark Diacono is excellent company to be reading. His books are funny, inviting, and idiosyncratic, and that's what I return to books for as much as the recipes - books that make cooking feel like a collaboration, an adventure, a conversation so that using them is as satisfying in its way as consuming the results. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

The Last Graduate - Naomi Novik

My plan to whittle a few books out of an entirely beyond-my-control TBR heap by picking on the vaguely spooky-themed ones is sort of working. I think this comes under the umbrella of Dark Academia, a sub-genre I know very little about). I bought 'The Last Graduate' as a shiny new hardback, it's been lurking by my bed ever since last year when it came out, and now I've read it just as the final part of the trilogy has landed.

I'm definitely a Naomi Novik fan and she didn't let me down here. I still think that this series possibly belongs in young adult fiction, mostly because of its school setting and young protagonists - but I'm not going to get hung up on it, especially as her characters develop. It picks up immediately after the events of A Deadly Education. We're back in the Scholomance with El and a growing band of friends, the school still seems to be trying to kill her and she's still a bundle of barely contained teenage anger. 

Having friends that she cares about is changing El though, she might be just as angry with the system that allows certain kids a better chance of survival (the already privileged ones) but they're becoming people that she cares about, or she's just starting to care about people more - either way there's a lot of growth for her character.

Her insistence that she's destined to be the darkest of dark witches begins to look a little shakey too. I don't want to go overboard on spoilers - the book may have been out almost a year, but whilst it's a moderately popular series it's still got time and room to get a lot bigger - so read on with care, but... It's possible the school hasn't been trying as hard to kill her as she thought, and probably not just for spite. We learn more about Orian and what makes him tick too, and that also gives pause for thought. Why are El and Orian the way they are?

'The Last Graduate' also brings in a few more characters and gives them a chance to shine. Presumably, they're going to be important in book 3, but as El becomes less of an outsider everything goes from black and white to shades of grey. The end is a terrific cliffhanger too, with no obvious way of being resolved, so that's another thing to look forward to in book 3 when the Scholomance kids will erupt into the real world.  

The series is still a scathing attack on capitalism, and now more than ever on the benefits of collectivism in the face of both danger and an increasingly uncertain future. The whole message of the book is that to survive we might have to work against our own individual interests for the common good - but that it has to be done willingly, and presented to us as an honest choice. 

As a political message, it's not overly subtle, which is another reason it feels like a young adult book to me. But then maybe if you've hit 30 and still can't see why constant selfishness isn't sustainable subtlety is probably wasted on you anyway so maybe Novik is right. 

Either way, this is a decent series, entertaining on its own terms, with terrific world-building, and a great main character who manages to be appealing because of her constant bitching, rather than despite it, which is a neat trick to pull off. For an American, Novik also nails British swearing which impresses me too. 

Sunday, October 2, 2022

Horseman - Christina Henry

A second vaguely spooky book for October, but unlike the absolute delight that is 'Strange Relics', 'Horseman' is a mess which really disappointed me. I've been trying to expand and update my reading a little bit for work purposes, with mixed results. Horseman is one of the most irritating books I've finished in a while. 

Christina Henry is a steadily popular writer in the shop, not a bestseller but definitely a regular seller, the covers are great and the starting point of popular fairy tales and stories is exactly the sort of hook that I'll take a bite at. 'Horseman' takes place in Sleepy Hollow about 30 years after Washington Irving's story and picks up with Brom and Katrina's grandchild, 14-year-old Ben who along with a friend sees the headless, handless, corpse of a village boy their own age deep in the woods where wise people do not go. 

The problems with the book start with Henry's endless repetition, tidy that out of the way and you might just have a novella left because there is virtually no point made only once and many which are made dozens upon dozen of times. The next issue is that there isn't really much of a plot, thirdly is that what plot there is doesn't make much sense partly because there's a lack of internal logic. Then there's the depressingly common issue that something being sold as an adult novel is very much young adult. A younger audience might get more out of this.

My final issue is around Ben's gender identity - so please ignore the next bit if you don't want spoilers. Ben is Bente, the daughter of Bendix, but she doesn't want to be a girl, she's a boy. Girls are easily frightened, weak, creatures who live constrained lives in this world, whereas boys get to be strong, have to be fearless, and are spared learning female accomplishments. 

Apart from the reductive stereotypes, I dislike this because what Ben seems to most desire is freedom outside of gender so the endless statements about being a boy lack conviction. Couple that with Brom's choice to bring up his grandaughter as a replacement for his dead son, right down to the name, and Ben's absolute devotion and much-repeated hero worship of their grandfather and the message gets further mixed. Ben is also the only heir of a wealthy family, in the fullness of time she can afford to live as she'll see fit which makes the fights over the female accomplishments and the need to find a husband seem somewhat redundant.

Then we're repeatedly told that Sleepy Hollow is a magical place, with magic in the air, and monsters in the woods. Things will come true there if people believe them - but there's no explanation as to why, or why anybody is believing in a monster that takes the hands and heads of teenage boys in a place where that could become an actual thing. Even when we do find out something, and another massive spoiler here - it turns out the monster does what it does just because. 

Nor does it help that Ben is an irritatingly selfish character who manages to be wrong about just about everything. Instincts say stay away - Ben dives in. Ben doesn't believe anything could happen in Sleepy Hollow without everybody knowing about it - it turns out that Ben doesn't remember, or notice, several pertinent plot points has only the sketchiest idea about who's who in the rest of the village, and has totally missed out on knowing anything about his own family. 

A teen wondering about their own identity might find something to relate to in here, and wouldn't be unduly frightened by the horror bits which occasionally emerge from the endless repetition, but for anybody else, I'd say it's a hard avoid. Amazon reviews are mostly positive, Goodreads much more mixed. I'm firmly in the 1 star camp, and probably won't try Henry again, though I do note several people who were also disappointed by Horseman rate her earlier books. 

Saturday, October 1, 2022

Strange Relics - ed Amara Thornton & Katy Soar

It's October, which I'm reluctantly going to accept is now considered 'spooky' season - I do at least like a good ghost story or a bit of weird and have plenty of examples to catch up on this month. I'm also hoping to blog a bit more regularly again. Events this year have caught up with me more than I anticipated, but short of work being exceptionally full on between now and Christmas I hope there won't be much to distract me. 

I certainly won't be able to afford to go out, and if I've got the heating on I'll be staying home to enjoy it thank you very much. I've even put proper curtains up after almost 18 years of living in this flat (there were not great blinds before, even a couple of hours in the curtains are making a discernable difference). But back to the book...

Strange Relics is a collection of 'Stories of Archaeology and the Supernatural, 1895-1954' and it's an excellent place to kick off from. Recently published by Handheld Press it's a satisfying collection of uncanny, although Handheld is the sort of press that makes me want to use unheimlich instead. 

The book starts with Arthur Machen's 'The Shining Pyramid' which reminds me of  John Buchan's 'No-Man's Land which appears in British Weird in that they both imagine an ancient and malevolent race that's somehow survived in an out of the way pocket of land. It's a theme that crops up in other bits of fiction from the late 19th and early 20th century and still sort of persists anywhere people half believe in the little folk or trows. It also recalls the way we like to still half believe in the possibility of a Loch Ness monster even now.

John Buchan is represented in this collection with Ho! The Merry Masons, which for my money is one of the scarier entries (based almost entirely on my deep antipathy for Roslyn Chapel which is both a virtuoso display of the master masons work and deeply unheimlich). I absolutely go with the mood in this one. Roman Remains by Algernon Blackwood, Rose Macauley's Whitewash, and Eleanor Scott's 'The Cure' have the same effect.

It's altogether a really strong collection of stories that work well together thematically with several tropes reappearing in ways that underline their significance in the decades they're being written in. In turn, this reflects our corresponding preoccupations of the times. It's also just excellent as a collection of the weird - with Pan getting some significant outings (he's having a moment, there's a British Library collection dedicated to him). So either as a work of academic interest or just for the fun of it I absolutely recommend 'Strange Relics'.

And now I have to go and dispose of an extremely large and drapey spider's web that's appeared very quickly over my desk if I'm to sleep at all tonight without nightmares. All the activity around putting up those new curtains has obviously disturbed Something...